metal detectors
Detroiters pass through metal detectors at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 in Detroit, Mich. (Malachi Barrett | BridgeDetroit)

Full-body scanners powered by artificial intelligence promise to detect handguns and other weapons as easily as residents take a “strolling walk” through them, according to the Detroit Police Department, but opponents argue the technology won’t make the city safer.

The Detroit City Council voted 7-2 Tuesday in favor of a four-year, $1.3 million contract with Massachusetts-based Evolv Express for 10 weapon detection systems that will be dispatched to community events, block parties, outdoor gatherings and other happenings around the city starting this summer. 

Detroit Police Department Assistant Chief Todd Bettison and Deputy Chief Franklin Hayes said the “smart” scanners offer key advantages over traditional metal detectors; they can be set up in open spaces, don’t require people to empty their pockets or bags and allow for faster screening of large crowds. 

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“It will also allow us to utilize our officers more efficiently,” Bettison told council members ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “These metal detectors will create safe spaces for large groups of people and will act as a force multiplier for our police department so we can spread officers out.”

“Crowd-sized” metal detectors are part of Detroit Police Chief James White’s 2022 community safety strategy, which aims to expand tools like surveillance cameras and gunshot detection sensors to deter shootings. Bettison acknowledged Tuesday that the initial batch of scanners won’t be enough and that the department is seeking grants to secure an additional 10 scanners. 

“We do believe this is where the future is going,” Bettison said. “We want to be ahead of it.” 

Council members Gabriela Santiago-Romero and Angela Whitfield-Calloway voted against the contract. 

In a tearful speech, Santiago-Romero shared her experiences with gun violence – saying she’s experienced the loss of an 18-year-old relative in a shooting and that she’s been robbed three times at gunpoint – but she doesn’t believe weapon scanners will address the root causes of crime.

“My experiences are many experiences that Detroiters live, and this is why people are leaving our city,” Santiago-Romero said. “I need us to grow our population, and I believe in order to do so we have to address the underlying issues of poverty, homelessness, mental health and provide quality basic city services. I do not believe metal detectors will address those issues.”

Evolv marketing materials promise a smooth experience for users and accuracy for patrons. The scanners are equipped with software designed to distinguish weapons from personal items without requiring people to stop and hand over their belongings. Potential threats appear on a screen monitored by security officers and the system allows data to be collected and stored. A message left with Evolv on Tuesday was not immediately returned.

Some security experts nationally have raised doubts over the accuracy of the scanners, warning that weapon detection systems have not been adequately studied and can be vulnerable to false positives. 

Evolv was founded in 2013 and is quickly finding new customers among sports stadiums, schools, hospitals, and theaters, according to investor materials. The company is backed by investors like Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed interest in installing AI-driven weapons detectors in the city’s subway system after a deadly shooting last month. Evolv was on the city’s shortlist of potential vendors. 

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson noted Tuesday that the city’s $1.3 million investment is significant and that the technology needs to “earn their keep” by demonstrably protecting residents.  

“These are very, very expensive tools for your toolbox, and I want to ensure that they are able to prove their worth, so I’m looking forward to the reports and the data,” Benson told Detroit police officials. 

Bettison responded to Benson by citing a 2019 Force Detroit study that found each death by gun violence in Detroit costs state and local governments $1.6 million. Force Detroit Executive Director Alia Harvey-Quinn spoke Tuesday during public comment in favor of the scanners, saying they are necessary “as long as we live in a city where five year old’s are being shot in the face at the same time as their parents are being overly criminalized.”

Representatives for The Parade Company and Detroit Branch NAACP were also among those who spoke in favor of the scanners. 

Bettison said the technology could be used at Detroit Police Athletic League sporting events where tensions run high between opposing teams. DPD can work with coaches to identify games where confrontations among fans could occur, he said. 

Hayes pitched the technology as “a win for everyone,” saying community groups can even request the scanners for use at their events. 

“We hope this tool is not the police department’s tool but the community’s tool,” Hayes said. 

Longtime Councilman James Tate urged caution that the city not overstate the impact of the scanners and the community’s ability to use them, given that there are only 10. However, he voted in favor of the contract after highlighting past shootings that occurred at community fireworks and other events.

“This is an opportunity; I support it being used and the capacity has been presented,” said Tate, a former civilian second deputy chief of public information for the Detroit Police Department. “I just want to make sure we don’t oversell it to residents as a tool that they can readily use. I know that folks are thinking (they can use it at) a block party, it’s just not, in my opinion, feasible for that type of use, and we need to let folks know that on the front end.”

Councilmember Fred Durhal III called the contract a “no brainer” that’s in line with the goals of Detroit’s gun violence task force, which Durhal leads. 

“When we talk about these meetings where we’re bringing rival gangs together and asking them to put their weapons down because it’s going to be a hot summer, folks have been locked up two years due to COVID and now this is going to be one of the first summers where things are fully open, safety comes to mind,” Durhal said. “I think about August of last year at McCabe Field where three teens were shot during a football game right in my district, and what that would have meant if we had a metal detector in there to stop folks from coming in there with guns.”

The four-year contract is being funded through unlimited tax general obligation bonds. The cost covers training for system operators at DPD and Evolv is required to provide support and preventative maintenance services. 

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