Unconcealed: NYPD Considering Radiation Scanners to Identify Weapons

Wednesday, January 30, 2013, by Ashley McAlarney

The NYPD recently announced the pending use of portable radiation scanners on patrol that can “spot concealed guns from a distance.” The scanners interpret terahertz radiation, which naturally emits from people and objects. The devices can “see” past clothing and many other materials other than metals. So they are able to register if a metal object is blocking the energy that a person is emitting and will display the shape of that object, helping the police spot any concealed weapons underneath the person’s clothes.

These scanners, called “T-Ray machines” are still in the testing phases, but the NYPD is optimistic about their future success. The relatively small machines can be used from a distance and eliminate the need for pat down searches. Scanners could remain in squad cars or be positioned on “dangerous” street corners to try and detect suspicious objects from afar.

Although the NYPD is still in the testing and planning stages in terms of how to utilize the radiation scanners, valid concerns over the legality of these devices raise compelling questions that should be answered before the police are able to use them.

This idea of “virtual pat downs” has naturally already sparked some resistance. The New York Civil Liberties Union has questioned “technology that allows police to peer into a person’s body or possessions.” The group is interested, though, in the possibility that use of the T-Ray machine from a distance could cut down on the abuse of the Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy.  Others are concerned about “false positives [that] could lead to unjustified stops.” There are definite Fourth Amendment issues involved in terms of whether a random scan of a person on the street constitutes a search without probable cause.

The announcement of this planned tactic for concealed weapon searches falls within the current gun control debate. New York State has been a leader in passing stricter legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. These new regulations focus mainly on assault weapons. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly notes, however, that in the city the vast amount of gun violence (60% of murders) comes from handguns. Strict concealed carry laws make it virtually impossible for the average citizen to have a permit to carry a gun in New York City. So the scanners are an effort to cut down on illegal gun possession as well as gun violence.

Although the NYPD is still in the testing and planning stages in terms of how to utilize the radiation scanners, valid concerns over the legality of the devices raise compelling questions that should be answered before the police are able to use them.  The scanners, if deemed constitutional, could potentially contribute to a reduction in gun violence. Perhaps there is a way to use the devices in a way that satisfies the personal privacy and Fourth Amendment-based objections, but for now that remains to be seen.