Will COVID-19 Affect Weapons Detection on Your Campus?
Many hospitals, K-12 schools and colleges use metal detectors, but will the coronavirus have a significant impact on how the technology is used?
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For weapons detection in K-12 schools, Dorn also says developing logical protocols to limit exposure and training staff on how to implement those protocols should also be a top priority.
One protocol that would significantly help reduce contact between screening personnel and those being screened while still providing a high level of deterrence is the use of demonstrably random alternating numerical sequencing to select a smaller number of people being screened but screening more thoroughly than is typically the case with campus metal detection, says Dorn.
“A supervisor might use a series of cards that have a series of numbers such as 7, 3, 9, 6, 2, 4 and 8. For this sequence of numbers, every seventh person would be screened until seven people have been screened, then every third person would be screened until three people have been screened, etc., until the last of the eighth people screened for the last number in the sequence have been screened,” Dorn describes. “At this point, a different card or computer-generated series of numbers would be used and the sequences would be documented.”
According to Dorn, this particular approach to weapons screening has additional advantages beyond the threat of coronavirus exposure, including:
- Reduces the chances that individual screeners will select who will be screened or how thoroughly they will be screened due to bias
- Makes it difficult for someone to move their position in line to avoid screening
- Reduces the invasiveness of screening to a much smaller number of people per day/event
- Makes it easier to prevent unreliable screening approaches
Dorn emphasizes that viable written procedures and protocols are much more complex than as described above, and they need to be developed based on the types of setting and events where metal detectors are used with a lot of variables in between.
Although metal detectors can be reasonably effective when adapted to specific environments, they won’t prevent all crimes, which is why a layered weapons screening process using combinations of behavioral analytics and analytic camera software is also key.
“Too many venues are using badly dated metal detection approaches that are easily defeated and present more of a façade of security than what is possible,” warns Dorn. “We can do better than what I most typically see and should do better when metal detectors are deemed to be appropriate.”
For institutions of higher education, metal detectors are most often deployed for athletics, concerts or other events at large stadiums. Since so many unknowns remain regarding the coronavirus and what’s the best strategy for reopening in the fall, most campuses have made several contingency plans.
New Mexico State University (NMSU) Police Department’s Chief Stephen Lopez says even though his department is still waiting to hear what special events the Las Cruces campus may be able to hold this fall, his team has identified several considerations and subsequent security plans regarding screenings and metal detection.
If No Fans Are Allowed
“Even if no fans are allowed, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a potential threat,” Lopez says. “We will still need to ensure the physical safety of participants, officials and staff.”
It is likely these events will be broadcast to a large fan base, which might still make them attractive targets for individuals wanting to make a statement.
“As such, standard protocols like facility sweeps (including checking for explosives), security checkpoints and perimeter control, and physical lockdown of facilities leading up to the game will be just as important as they were before,” he adds.
If Fans Are Allowed
For events where fans are allowed, screening criteria at gates will likely need to be modified, including the use of clear bags.
“This has provided a good opportunity to require clear, small bags for any personal items so that the security team doesn’t have to handle someone’s belongings, which would risk possible disease transmission in both directions,” says Lopez.
Clear bags policies have been implemented at hundreds of stadiums across the country, so it will be interesting to see how many other campuses follow suit — perhaps some that were previously hesitant for various reasons.
Another challenge security personnel will need to consider is the inability to pick up on facial cues since face masks will likely be in use — either by choice or requirement.
“The face masks also present an opportunity to conceal possible small weapons,” Lopez adds. “While we don’t do pat-downs of patrons absent reasonable, articulable suspicion consistent with a Terry stop-and-frisk, this is one more area officers will have to remember to check, while at the same time keeping in mind that asking someone to remove a mask may also increase the risk of exposure — either unintentional or through intentional acts by a suspect, including spitting.”
Lopez and his team have also evaluated the potential for a suspect to have a handcuff key hidden in a face mask or a wire in the nose bridge that can be used as a lock pick.
“It may be a best practice to take off any face mask being worn by an arrestee — after donning appropriate PPE — and replacing it with one provided by the police department and then securing the detainee’s mask,” he says. “Face masks might also provide an opportunity to conceal drugs, so removing the face mask might also help alleviate the potential for a prisoner to try to swallow a drug supply to avoid detection.”
Although the school’s stadium has a large bank of walk-through metal detectors backed up by handheld wands for secondary screening, Lopez admits he’s not quite sure yet if their use will change much due to the pandemic.
“Once we have identified events where they will be used — i.e. where fans will be present — we plan to set them up and run extensive testing with a variety of face coverings to determine if any metal components cause any issues.”
However, in the altered environment, Lopez does expect to extensively utilize the campus’ surveillance camera system, along with patrols in parking areas, to help identify people who may be trying to conceal items in face masks or are engaging in other suspicious activity before they approach event facilities.
Staff Must Be Protected
Whether fans are allowed in or not, it is vital for screening staff to be thoroughly protected. Like hospital security personnel, they too are frontline workers, ensuring the physical safety of those on campus while risking their own.
“This includes making sure we have adequate protective equipment for them and that procedures are in place and monitored to ensure they are used consistently,” says Lopez. “If they will have close contact with people of unknown health status, we may elect to require they wear N95 respirators, but that use also means they need to be fit-tested to ensure they are actually giving the expected benefit.”
So far, NMSU found one single-size N95 model that has worked for over 88% of staff, which has helped cut down on the number of models and sizes that must be kept on hand.
While weapons detection at large events may look different post-COVID-19, Lopez doesn’t expect there to be significant changes in other areas on campus — something only time will tell.