Los Angeles’ transit agency said Tuesday that it would become the first in the nation to use body scanners to screen passengers entering stations, a bold effort to thwart terrorist threats as agencies in New York and elsewhere test the same technology.
Officials in Los Angeles said riders need not worry that their morning commute would turn into the sort of security nightmare often found at airports or even sporting events. The portable screening devices, which will be deployed later this year, will “quickly and unobtrusively” screen riders without revealing their anatomy and without forcing them to line up or stop walking, they said.
“We’re looking specifically for weapons that have the ability to cause a mass casualty event,” Alex Wiggins, the chief security and law enforcement officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said Tuesday. “We’re looking for explosive vests, we’re looking for assault rifles. We’re not necessarily looking for smaller weapons that don’t have the ability to inflict mass casualties.”
The new body scanner system could expand far beyond Los Angeles. The federal government has been studying the technology for nearly 15 years and the Transportation Security Administration has been testing the scanners over the past year with major transportation agencies nationwide. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey deployed them in a test this week at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, where a man tried to detonate a faulty pipe bomb in December.
The devices themselves resemble the sort of black laminate cases that musicians lug around on tour — not upright metal detectors. Dave Sotero, a spokesman for the LA Metro, said the machines, which are on wheels, can detect suspicious items from 30 feet away and can scan more than 2,000 passengers per hour. The units can be pointed in the direction of riders as they come down an escalator or into a station.
“Most people won’t even know they’re being scanned, so there’s no risk of them missing their train service on a daily basis,” he said.
The software can detect hidden objects using technology that examines the naturally occurring waves produced by a person’s body. The technology does not emit radiation, officials added.
Sotero said the agency had purchased several of the units for about $100,000 each, but he would not specify exactly how many. He said that authorities still needed to be trained on how to use the technology.
Los Angeles County’s metro system has one of the largest riderships in the United States, with 93 rail stations alone — and it is set to expand. Sotero said the new scanning units would be deployed mostly at random stations, but also would be used at major transit hubs and in places where large crowds are expected for marches, races and other events.
“There won’t be a deployment pattern that will be predictable,” he said. “They will go where they’re needed.”
TSA partnered with the Los Angeles transit agency on the project, helping the agency test and vet security technologies. The devices the agency ultimately purchased — made by the company Thruvision — can be placed at locations throughout the transit system and can identify both metallic and nonmetallic objects, officials said.