By Felipe De La Hoz
We still don’t know what exactly prompted Tuesday morning’s subway attack, though suspect Frank James’ extensive online record shows he was disturbed, afflicted with overwhelming anger toward official systems and plagued by conspiracy theories and fantasies of a race war. Investigators and journalists will spend the next several weeks parsing the man’s history and activities, including how he managed to legally purchase the firearm he used. But now that he’s in custody the more immediate question is how the authorities will respond to the public’s fear and apprehension.
This type of incident is of a different sort than the more general, interpersonal gun violence that has seen a rise in the city in recent months, and we as humans are driven to find patterns and build narratives. There’s no doubt this has heightened anxieties. The development of public policy has always been something of a balance between looking at data and accounting for public perceptions, and understanding that one is linked to but not wholly driven by the other.
The current conversation around crime, for example, often ignores the fact that the increases are coming from what was a historically low baseline after having dropped precipitously over the last two decades, and that NYC remains one of the safest big cities in the United States and is far safer than most of the rest of the country. Still the feeling of danger matters very much politically, and Mayor Eric Adams has made it a priority to address it with visible action, like his sweeps of homeless people in subways and outdoor encampments.
In the wake of Tuesday’s shooting, he turned to another particular fixation in his enthusiasm to combat crime: technology. At various points throughout his nascent administration, the mayor has gushed about the role of cutting-edge technology in assisting law enforcement, appearing to suggest a prominent role for controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI, for example. This week, he brought up another favored instrument, gun scanners.
The rhetoric shifted quickly after he was asked by CBS New York correspondent Marcia Kramer about putting metal detectors in the subways—part of a long tradition of Kramer’s preoccupation with crime and penchant for injecting out-of-left-field notions into the political discourse in the guise of questions—to which the mayor responded that it was under consideration. This is self-evidently logistically impossible to do in any widespread fashion, so Adams amended his expression of interest to these scanners, which in theory can use radar or heat signatures to detect weapons hidden under clothing.
If this sounds like something out of Minority Report to you, you’re not far off in thinking of it as science fiction. Though these technologies are in active development, most law enforcement experts agree that they don’t have nearly the sophistication to clearly differentiate between a gun and a knife and something like a thermos or a stapler. Deploying these systems at subway entrances might pose issues of three different types—practical, legal, and moral.
Practically, there is almost no way to introduce them in a way that doesn’t create some friction at entry points, which is a concern for a system that moves millions of people a day and forms the infrastructural backbone and lifeblood of the city, particularly as ridership has decreased over the pandemic years and strained revenues. Legally, a search conducted by a ray is still arguably a search, and there may be some legal deficiencies within the idea of having generalized, unprompted, unreasonable searches of everyone entering the system. Morally, it’s not a throwaway to introduce additional, pervasive, and AI-powered surveillance into more and more public spaces as a question of governance and society. Before the administration adopts these technologies in a widespread fashion, these are issues that must be addressed.
Epicenter’s community reporter, Andrea Pineda-Salgado, hit the streets to hear people’s reaction to the Brooklyn subway attack, as well as Mayor Adams’ idea to install metal detectors.
The following has been edited for clarity.
“The subway shooting is really unfortunate, and I just hope the city has a metal device to detect what is coming in the subway. I feel like when shootings happen they cause massive casualties. That guy’s gun could have fired more shots. The metal detectors will be good, it might slow things down because New York City has a lot of people during rush hours. I know you can’t carry a gun in the city, but then you also can’t stop people with bad intentions from carrying a gun. I don’t know what is a good balance, I hope they can figure it out.”
~Amy Chen, 35
“When I heard about the subway shooting, I was scared and I was devastated because I take the train everyday to work. I was thinking, what would have happened if this man was in the tunnel and not when the train was approaching the station? So many people would have died. I wish I didn’t have to take the train, but I have to. I pray before I leave in the morning so that nothing happens. Police officers cannot be in every car and every train, it is impossible. You cannot depend on the NYPD to do everything, we have to think about something to help us because people depend on trains and buses every day.
~Prudence Brown, 49
“I have no idea what’s going on, I have no idea why there’s a sudden spike in gun violence. But in the past two months, gun crimes have gone up in New York exponentially like never before. Metal detectors won’t work because you get a lot of false positives. I got metal in my leg, I would get stopped. The subway cops are not patrolling like they used to. Years ago, they would ride the trains. They used to walk through each car. They would have cops start at opposite sides of the train and walk. They don’t do that anymore. They stand on the platform and look at their phones. Even this morning, at Grand Central I saw four cops on the platform and they were standing around looking at their phones. They’re so interested in social media they’re not seeing what’s going on on the platform. They’re useless.”
~Abu’Safi Al-Jamaki, 74
NYC Parks Worker
“It’s a tragedy and I think it is an opportunity for us to help people who have mental health issues. The shooting will make me take the subway less. To get to work I have to hop a few different lines, sometimes I just walk to my office in Flatiron, so I think I will just start walking. Metal detectors would create a lot of congestion in the same way that you wait in long security lines for air travel. You can’t do that to get to where you are going every day. I have a feeling that it would become the type of thing where people would take the subway less anyway. I think a better idea would be to invest in mental health support for people who need it.
~Alex M., 34
“The Brooklyn shooting was pretty disconcerting. I haven’t been taking the subway, just in case. Also the fact that the guy was out for so long and they didn’t find him was also pretty upsetting. My girlfriend lives in Brooklyn, and so I was just texting her all day like, ‘Hey, are you OK, what’s going on?’ And because she was at work she didn’t respond and it was terrifying. I do see myself taking the subway again. It’s just that I feel a little nervous. You would think that kind of thing wouldn’t happen in New York, right? We’ve got all the gun control laws and we’ve got a billion dollars a year going to the cops.
~William Lemoore, 21
Real estate intern