The Metropolitan Police in London seem to be engaged in a week long experiment Operation Blunt using a metal detector to search bus passengers for knives in in the combined Bus Station, Tube Station and Shopping Centre complex at the major transport hub of Hammersmith in West London.
The devices are described by our street tech correspondent as:
"Two metal poles with boxes mounted on them, with red and white flashing lights. They are positioned at the bottom of an escalator, about 2 metres away from the end, to avoid interference from the escalator itself."
Informal inquiries and experiments suggest that this equipment is not particularly sophisticated and resembles amateur "treasure hunter" tunable metal detector equipment, in that it is currently set to only detect ferrous objects i.e. iron and steel.
Stainless steel items are not detected !
Refusal to go through the detector seems to trigger a "you must have something to hide" response, tempered by the usual "ethnic" and "yoof" issues, which leads to a "normal stop and search" by the attendant Police Officers (a rare sight, normally).
Yesterday, there were reports of false postives from mobile phones.
Is this simply more security theatre ?
There is only the one machine, covering a single escalator, despite multiple entrances and exits to the building.
What exactly is being tested, the equipment or the human procedures surrounding the deployment of the equipment ?
Apart from the inevitable media press conference to announce the suspiciously named "Operation Blunt" (blunt - knife ? doh !) the actual human and system procedures seem to have failed already.
The Metropolitan Police are meant to operate a policy of giving written reasons for a "stop and search", but already we have eyewitness reports of no warning signs or notification that this equipment has been installed, and there have been several "stops and searches" without giving people an oral or a written reason for doing so.
Under what legal power are these metal detector stops and searches being conducted ? Is it the Anti-terrorism Act or the Police Act 1997 ? Police do have the power to designate an area e.g. around a football match or a demonstration march in the street, where there is a potential for violence, and to conduct searches of people for hidden weapons. Has Hammersmith been so designated, and if so, exactly which areas, for how long, and under whose authority ?
Usually, a Police Officer must have some grounds of "reasonable suspicion" before stopping and searching someone.
Setting off a crude metal detector whilst going through the public transport system is not "reasonable grounds for suspicion", it is akin to a policy of "random" stops and searches, which is both wasteful of police resources, and an affront to the civil liberties of the vast majority of innocent people who are stopped and searched in this way.
Several police officers are needed to guard the equipment itself from being damaged or stolen. Are any arrests or genuine "stops and searches" more statistically significant than one would expect due to the actual physical presence of those same police officers, actually "on the beat" but without the metal detectors ?
Is the plan to install this equipment on a permanent basis ? Airport style "security theatre" queues on London Buses and Underground Railways would surely grind the transport system to a halt.
Or is this whole thing just a temporary publicity stunt for the politicians and senior police officers to be seen to be tackling knife crime ?
Admittedly, the technology being "tested" is not quite as intrusive as the various attempts to deploy "See Under Your Clothes" scanners, but since it is obviously cheaper than these, the temptation to deploy yet another surveillance technology may be attractive to those in power who grasp at technological magic fixes in the vain hope that they will solve social problems.
Update: Here are some video capture stills from a brief ITN news clip illustrating the device discussed above: