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Abate gun violence with public health, defense technology

Zahreya Peeples, 16, talks about one of her friends who was killed by a gun.

Baltimore’s unrelenting epidemic of gun violence leaves city and police officials scratching their heads about how best to abate this public health scourge. Over the last 10 years, more than 3,000 people have died from violence, the majority of them in incidents that involved firearms. In the month of June there were nearly three dozen murders, with 13 individuals shot in one weekend. Each day multiple shootings are reported across the city; many of the victims are bystanders, their only transgression being that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Few neighborhoods escape the perception or reality of violence in Baltimore. The answer to the question about how to abate gun-related violence lies in part with modern tools and technology borrowed from public health and defense.

Public health uses syndromic surveillance as a means of determining where there is enough probability that a disease outbreak will occur that greater public health attention is warranted. Syndromic surveillance is a specific type of trend analysis that can detect variables associated with an epidemic. It is also used to identify possible events involving a weapon of mass destruction or other terrorist acts by analyzing incidents such as increased volumes of calls that are similar in nature or that exceed typical call data.

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In a medical emergency, a patient goes to an emergency department, and the patient’s health status information is captured in the facility’s electronic health record (EHR) and sent to a syndromic surveillance system. The system analyzes the data for trends and abnormalities and draws conclusions about a possible epidemic or other health emergency. The state of Louisiana uses syndromic data to determine where drug overdoses are likely to occur in the state. The government then strategically directs support to organizations whose mission is to fight drug abuse and shapes policy and programs to address the problem. In a law enforcement application, drug use, crime, violence and other data could be used to predict where gun and other violence is likely to occur so that law enforcement and community intervention programs such as Safe Streets and Cease Fire can be deployed.

Terahertz imaging detection measures natural radiation emitted by people; it can detect guns because they impede the natural flow of energy. Much like night vision goggles, it can differentiate between many objects hidden below many types and layers of clothing. Development of the technology has created more compact systems and has sped commercial applications from the research laboratory to the real world.

Not surprisingly the terahertz technology is controversial; some observers say that the very fact of one being targeted for suspicion of carrying a weapon is an invasion of privacy. Even if the device was mounted on a vehicle to take images of everyone within a certain range, civil libertarians could still raise concerns. On the other hand, law enforcement officials argue that the technology will eliminate the indignity of subjecting one to a physical search for no reason.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees individuals the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. Fundamentally, the law allows police to stop and frisk a person only if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that he or she is committing or about to commit a crime. Some legal observers say that scanning a person is not a search; rather, it is like the technology used to detect drivers who exceed the posted speed limit or run a red light where enforcement is applied only after someone has violated the law. Nevertheless, some behavior threshold must be reached before law enforcement can frisk someone; a simple scan that finds a weapon may not be enough.

The use of syndromic surveillance and terahertz technologies could be controversial if police use it for racial profiling and/or to subject citizens to unwarranted search and seizures. At the same time, however, these tools could be one option to reduce the wanton violence that appears to be overtaking our city.

One means of building consensus around the acceptable use of the technology is to convene a workgroup of technologists, legal scholars, law enforcement and the public to test the technology and develop acceptable protocols for its use. Such a partnership could establish collaboration and trust among the various stakeholders, integrate community knowledge in the research and develop culture-centered interventions. Long-term outcomes could be sustained partnerships among stakeholders, a sense of shared power, cultural reinforcement in the work of law enforcement and, eventually, improved social justice and community transformation.

Marcus Pollock (mpollock@phrmd.org ) is a member of the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission, former chief of standards and technology for the Federal Emergency Management Agency within the Department of Homeland Security; he is also executive director of Park Heights Renaissance Inc.

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