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NEW YORK — Mayor Eric Adams called for gun detection technology on New York City’s subway system Wednesday after a gunman shot ten people on a train in Brooklyn a day earlier, but critics questioned the devices' effectiveness and civil rights implications.
As the NYPD continued to hunt the suspect, Adams said he would look to try out high-tech scanners that could detect weapons — but not traditional metal detectors that would be impractical in New York’s crowded transit system.
“We have identified several new technologies that are not like metal detectors that are used at airports, where you have to empty your pockets and go through a long line to get in,” Adams said on WNYC radio in one of 10 interviews he gave Wednesday morning. “You just walk normally through the system. It is not even detectable that the devices are there. And we think there is some great promise in this technology, and we are going to continue to explore that.”
“We’re not at the place of full implementation, but we are excited about what we have witnessed thus far. And we’re going to be looking to do a few pilot projects to see the full use of it,” Adams said.
The state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, not the mayor, controls the subway system. But Adams said he would talk to MTA officials about trying out new technology.
Even before the subway shooting, Adams said he sent his deputy mayor for public safety, Phil Banks, to travel the globe studying public safety technology. The mayor has also embraced the use of controversial facial recognition tools.
“There are new models that are being used at …. ballparks, hospitals,” Adams said on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe." “We believe we have a technology that we can use in the subway system that many passengers are not even going to be aware that they are walking past a device that could detect weapons and we are excited about the possibilities and I’m not going to leave any legal technology off the table when it comes down to keeping New Yorkers safe.”
Adams said he did not have one specific security system in mind and would be open to various technologies.
In New York, the city-run Jacobi Medical Center installed a weapon detection system created by Evolv Technology after a shooting in the hospital’s emergency room, and Adams has floated using similar tools at city public schools.
Elsewhere, the Los Angeles subway — which is much smaller than New York’s — tried out scanners to detect guns. The system malfunctioned during a demonstration, according to The Associated Press. Camden Yards, the stadium home to the Baltimore Orioles, is also trying out a walk-through threat detection portal.
MTA Chair Janno Lieber said Wednesday he was open to new technology but wouldn’t support anything that would impede passengers’ free movement through the subway system.
“We're looking at the forefront of technology, as everybody is,” he said on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe." “We're not going to create an environment where people can't go about their business and create something that is impractical. This is our public square."
Adams said he would discuss the matter with the MTA after developing a more detailed idea of what technology he wants to test out. “Then we’ll sit down with the MTA, and I’m sure that they’ll join me in wanting to keep our subway system safe,” he said on PIX11 News.
Critics say the new systems cited by Adams could end up impinging upon the rights of New Yorkers without providing a meaningful increase in safety.
Since 2005, subway riders have been subject to occasional random searches of their bags by police, but the checks are rare.
“Over the last two decades, City Hall has continuously increased the size and scope of surveillance technology and turned the NYPD into a quasi-military force, largely at the expense of Black and brown New Yorkers,” Michael Sisitzky, senior policy counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “Mayor Adams’ campaign to bring back broken windows policing can’t be a blank check to dial up the worst harms of surveillance.”
New detection systems have been found to inaccurately flag everyday metal objects as potential weapons, according to Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. And that level of intrusion could give the NYPD an opening to search New Yorkers in a way that has disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities in the past.
“I think we know that officers are going to treat this very differently when a Black teenager and a middle-aged white man are both flagged by the system,” he said. “We’re going to see this turn into a pretext for stopping any transit rider that police want to.”
Cahn said officials promising safety through heightened surveillance are missing the point.
“We can’t flood a country with millions of guns and then think that the technology can keep us safe … as long as it remains this easy for people to obtain nightmarish weapons, we’re going to continue to see tragedy unfold,” he said. “Everything else is a distraction.”
Meanwhile, authorities formally identified Frank James as a suspect in the shooting — upgrading his previous description as a person of interest.
“We have not made an apprehension at this time,” Adams said on Fox News Wednesday morning. The suspect appears to have acted alone, the mayor said.
The NYPD increased Adams’ security detail in response to YouTube videos that appear to have been posted by James disparaging the mayor’s crime fighting plans, among other topics.
“Part of the job is receiving threats. I get threats from time to time,” Adams said on CNN Tuesday. “I have a great deal of confidence in the law enforcement officers that are around me.”
He said he planned to ride the subway on Saturday, after the required five-day isolation period for the disease ends.
“Saturday I will be back doing what I do, leading the city from the front. I will be on the subway station, communicating with passengers,” he said on Fox News.
Adams said he did not violate Covid-19 protocols to respond to the shooting, but was tempted to do so. “Trust me, I was very tempted. I did not like having to be at Gracie Mansion while this city was going through this,” he said.
Danielle Muoio Dunn and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.