Gun-Detection Tech Adams Touted Fails Stress Tests, But City Hall Interest Persists
Evolv Technology scanner misses aluminum tubes, even as it sounds alarms for umbrellas, reviews by a tech group and THE CITY found. A deputy mayor’s schedules show repeated meetings with the company.
On a rainy afternoon this week, the line of Evolv Technology gun detection machines placed at the entrance of a Manhattan museum beeped again and again, red lights flashing each time a visitor triggered the sleek gray machines as they passed through.
The red lights signaled a hit — detection of a cylindrical metal object, potentially a firearm. Most of the “weapons” were umbrellas carried in hand, so security waved the visitors through without paying much attention.
As the crowd of soggy visitors heading into the museum increased, THE CITY observed dozens more visitors with no visible umbrellas who triggered the machines getting waved through, too.
What set off the machines is unknown.
THE CITY is not disclosing the location of this museum, but a technology trade publication, IPVM, recently tested Evolv’s performance at this same site and was able to slip several aluminum tubes cut to look like gun barrels through the scanners without triggering its alarm.
The CEO of Evolv, Peter George, has said the scanners detect “all the guns, all the bombs, all the large tactical knives” but IPVM warned that the museum results indicate the machines would not register the presence of handguns or pipe bombs if they’re made of materials that are non-ferrous (meaning “without iron”).
Despite concerns about Evolv’s effectiveness, the company’s technology has been at the top of Mayor Eric Adams’ list of solutions as he has promised to find a way to efficiently red-flag individuals carrying firearms in public before they can wreak havoc.
Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), a tech monitoring group, worries that this reliance on tech to reduce the threat of gun violence will give New Yorkers a false sense of security. And, he argues, it could wind up making things worse.
“The idea that here’s some sort of quick tech fix for the nightmare is nothing but smoke and mirrors,” he said. “I continue to be concerned that the city is being sold on pseudoscience surveillance that doesn’t actually serve the city, but does potentially cost us millions. Many of these gun detection products are error prone and invasive and likely to lead to mass numbers of stop and frisks.”
Surveillance and Safety
The Massachusetts-based firm says its technology can distinguish between harmless metal objects such as keys and laptops and potentially harmful objects such as handguns. That allows individuals to pass through without having to remove items from their pockets, a process Adams championed as less invasive than other methods.
“We must be smarter,” the mayor said during a Feb. 23 press conference on an unrelated matter, describing “a device that we’re testing that allows us in a humane way to identify guns and weapons.”
And he vowed to deploy the technology widely.
“Everyone is asking about this device. We want to make sure we test it properly, and we’re currently in the process of testing it,” he added. “And we’re going to place it in schools so we could do a better job in identifying weapons.”
City Hall has yet to sign a contract with Evolv, but since mid-February, the firm’s scanners have been screening visitors to the emergency room of the city-run Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx — where a man shot another man inside the ER waiting room on Jan. 24.
On Wednesday in response to THE CITY’s questions, Christopher Miller, a spokesman for the city Health and Hospitals Corporation, said HHC will “continue to consider the expansion of this type of technology to other hospitals in our system,” stating that “our pilot with Evolv Technologies at Jacobi Hospital’s emergency department continues to provide enhanced security for all.”
An Evolv scanner was also placed for a time at City Hall, and Adams has even talked of putting Evolv scanners in the subways. The mayor has said he will look at any workable system, but to date has only mentioned one — Evolv.
In an emailed response to THE CITY, mayoral spokesperson Kate Smart insisted the Mayor’s Office has spoken with numerous companies that make gun detection equipment, and noted that Evolv is already in place at numerous private-sector spots around the city such as “ballparks, museums, hospitals, and at other venues.”
“Mayor Adams has made clear that public safety is his top priority, and repeatedly has and will continue to advocate for the exploration of technology that will keep New Yorkers safe in a legal, responsible way,” Smart wrote. “This, or any other technology we use, would be just a single tool in our toolbelt to protect New Yorkers.”
Adams told the Daily News he found the company on the internet, and by Feb. 7 — little more than a month into his term — the deputy mayor Adams put in charge of finding a gun detection solution, Philip Banks, had scheduled his first meeting with Evolv. Banks has since been in contact with two more companies offering gun detection devices, but none as much as Evolv, records of Banks’ daily schedules through May show.
As THE CITY recently reported, Banks’ schedule indicates he had four meetings involving Evolv, including checking out Evolv scanners at Lincoln Center and Jacobi Hospital. That compares to one meeting with a firm called Zero Eyes, and no meetings with a company called Omnilert from which he just received emailed materials.
In addition, Evolv hired a lobbyist, Urban Strategies, to seek City Hall support for its system. Lobbyist records filed by Urban Strategies list Banks as a target for lobbying in May and June regarding a “pilot program to test gun detection technologies at priority location.”
Fabien Levy, another spokesperson for the mayor, insisted that Banks did not meet with Evolv executives, despite the four meetings listed on Banks’ calendar. Responding to THE CITY’s questions, Levy wrote: “Mayor Adams has tasked Deputy Mayor Banks with learning about a multitude of new technologies that could be used for public safety purposes. As such, the deputy mayor has met with a number of technology companies to learn about their products.”
Evolv’s CEO, Peter George, recently noted that a former member of the NYPD heads up Evolv’s sales teams in New York City. He was referring to Dominick D’Orazio, who is listed on Linkedin as Evolv’s “NYC metro area” sales head.
During a talk at a technology conference in June, George emphasized the advantage of having a cop pushing product in New York City, stating that the salesman “was an NYPD cop and he’s a really good sales guy because he understands who we’re selling to. He has the secret handshake.”
From February 2008 through June 2009, D’Orazio was a commander in Brooklyn South reporting to, among others, then-Deputy Chief of Patrol for Brooklyn Borough South: Phil Banks. Through Levy, Banks denied meeting with D’Orazio in his role as an Evolv sales representative.
Asked about CEO George’s reference to a “secret handshake,” Dana Loof, Evolv’s chief marketing officer, wrote, “Evolv’s mission is to make places where people gather safer. Former law enforcement officers have a significant understanding of the layered approaches required to mitigate threats and are particularly well equipped to discuss Evolv technology within the context of a broader security plan. Mr. D’Orazio understands the mindset of police officers who are dedicated to keeping the public safe every day, and the challenges faced in the urban public security environment.”
The mayor’s scramble to find a workable gun detection system comes after three disturbing incidents earlier this year: in January the shooting at Jacobi; in April, a man firing indiscriminately inside an N-train subway car and hitting 10 people, and in May, a man fatally shooting a straphanger on the Q train for no apparent reason.
And broader trends are in play. The number of shooting incidents citywide began to ebb this year, but only after a precipitous and alarming spike that began pre-pandemic. After steadily declining for years, the number of shooting incidents rose from 697 in 2018 to 754 in 2019, then skyrocketed in the pandemic to reach 1,515 by the end of 2020, NYPD data show.
Last year’s annual figure rose only slightly to 1,546, and the number of shootings has since dipped, with 1,048 incidents through Sunday compared to 1,208 during the same period last year.
The reversal has occurred as the number of gun arrests has risen to 3,170 through August, up from 3,036 during the same period last year. But the push for gun detection has also been animated by June’s Supreme Court ruling declaring New York’s strict firearm carry permit protocols unconstitutional, increasing the likelihood of more individuals walking the streets of New York City with concealed handguns.
Conor Healy, director of research for IPVM, a video surveillance research group, said its testing of Evolv’s system in New York City should serve as a warning that there is no magic solution to the threat of gun violence in public places.
In June an IPVM researcher was able to smuggle aluminum tubes measuring 8 inches to 10.5 inches hidden in a backpack into the museum three times without setting off the scanners. When the IPVM staffer brought in a steel tube of the same length, the alarm went off.
Healy noted several cases where weapons were made of aluminum, not steel, including that of a Vermont man charged in May after police found in his home a 10-inch pipe bomb packed with explosive material with a message taped to it: “BYE BYE!”
“The outcome that we found is Evolv did not detect things it says it detects. Evolv says it detects all guns, all bombs, all knives — and that is clearly not true,” Healy said. “That is something [the Adams administration] should know about when they buy Evolv, and that is not something Evolv is saying.”
Healy noted that just last month, three people were shot inside an amusement park outside Pittsburgh called Kennywood that relied on Evolv scanners to tag firearms at the entrance. On Thursday, police there arrested a teenager as the suspected shooter and said they still don’t know how the weapons got into the park, but that they could have been thrown over a fence or brought in by someone who jumped the fence.
Loof from Evolv stated via email, “We reject the findings of IPVM’s report, which oversimplifies the complexities of weapons detection in an irresponsible and misguided way. True security experts in the industry understand there is a science around testing equipment with real weapons and weapon simulants, which have combinations of ferrous and non-ferrous metals (as well as other materials) in very specific combinations and shapes.”
Loof wrote that Evolv’s scanners have received a U.S. Department of Homeland Security SAFETY Act designation as “qualified anti-terrorism technology” and a new product award from the Security Industry Association.
Regarding the Kennywood shooting, Loof noted that the investigation is ongoing and added, “We share concern for the victims of the shooting that took place at Kennywood as well as all the individuals, families and children who have been impacted by the trauma surrounding this incident. We are deeply committed to our mission of making places where people gather safer.”