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Metro rolls out new security scanners to detect weapons, prevent ‘mass casualties’

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The devices detect concealed explosives

Officers using Metro security scanner
Officers testing the security devices in a Metro subway station.
Courtesy Metro

As Metro expands its network of high-capacity trains, the transit agency is investing in new technology to prevent attacks on riders.

Metro announced Tuesday that it had purchased devices designed to detect concealed explosives and weapons “intended to cause mass casualties.”

Metro is the first public transit agency in the nation to purchase the scanners (at the cost of about $400,000), which detect body heat and can rapidly identify objects hidden beneath clothing.

Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero tells Curbed that the devices are portable and will be moved from station-to-station depending on security needs. The devices do not emit radiation, won’t display “anatomical details,” and won’t interfere with passengers’ commutes, he says.

Earlier this year, the federal Transportation Security Administration and Amtrak police tested similar technology at New York’s Penn Station. The tests captured the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wrote in March that the scanners “raise serious constitutional questions” about the privacy of passengers.

No large-scale attacks have been carried out on Metro vehicles or in stations, but the agency has recently placed a greater emphasis on security, asking the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments to join the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Metro’s in-house security team in patrolling trains and buses.

“This new technology will augment our already aggressive safety and security measures and help us proactively deter potential attacks to our system,” said Metro Board Chair Sheila Kuehl.

In 2016 and 2017, bomb scares forced temporary station closures in Universal City and Hollywood. In both cases, law enforcement did not find explosives at the scene.

In an announcement, Metro said the new screening tools have been “tested extensively” by TSA, and will allow law enforcement agents to screen passengers “without disrupting foot traffic.”

A demonstration of the security device's scanning capability.
Courtesy Metro

The Fourth Amendment prevents law enforcement from carrying out most searches without a warrant. It is allowed in rare cases, such as when travelers pass through airport security, according to ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley. But he tells Curbed there are major differences between a train and an airplane.

“You can’t crash a train into a building,” he says.

Terrorists have targeted transit lines in other major cities, but Stanley says a bombing on a train isn’t fundamentally different from an attack in any other crowded place.

“If you’re going to [scan people] at trains and train stations, what public areas are you not going to do?” says Stanley. “We have to ask if we want to live in a society where we’re constantly being scanned.”