Commuters have experienced the first use of body scanners to screen for weapons at a British railway station, as local authorities stressed they had sought assurances from police that the public were made aware of their rights.
The technology – which can detect weapons including guns, knives and explosive devices concealed under clothing at distances of up to 30ft – was in use on Tuesday in the lead-up to evening rush hour at Stratford station in east London, one of the capital’s busiest transport hubs.
A sign erected at Stratford station by British Transport Police stated that they were trialling new security technology. The sign directed members of the public with questions to the team or an email address at the Home Office, which is funding the five-day pilot.
On the steps outside the station, friends Karleen Jones and Vicky Gullifer were resigned to the arrival of what the latter described as “big brother” – even if they they were divided on the devices’ effectiveness.
Jones said: “Someone’s just going to avoid the station if they know that they’re going to be there, aren’t they?”
Rezma Jusna said knife crime was a weekly problem in some areas nearby. She said: “If it’s something that can be prevented, then 100% [the scanners are a good thing], especially in high-crime areas, maybe not everywhere … but in places like Stratford.”
Subeyr Ahmed felt the project was a waste of money and suggested the £40,000 funding from the Home Office’s Joint Security and Resilience Centre would be better spent on grassroots community projects.
He said: “You may catch people – you probably will – but it doesn’t eliminate the problem. The knife will get taken away but then people will find other ways to get hold of weapons.”
James Beckles, cabinet member for crime and community safety at the local council, Newham, said he and colleagues had sought and received assurances from the police about the rollout of the project.
He said: “We did check out, in terms of the scope and scrutiny, how it was going to be used and it’s worth bearing in mind that this is something different to facial recognition technology.”
Beckles envisaged that it would be used on young people in particular. He said: “We do have to be mindful that police officers are briefed that this is going to be voluntary. Anyone who is stopped can also say no and I hope the police won’t be misleading people about it.”
Robin Smith, assistant chief constable at British Transport Police, said: “Fortunately, knife crime on the rail network is very low. However we recognise the important role our force plays in identifying those intent on carrying lethal weapons to commit atrocious crimes.”
The technology, produced a the British company called Thruvision, is already used by high street retailers such as Matalan, JD Sports and Next to screen staff and has been deployed since last year on the Los Angeles metro. The company is currently working to comply with a request from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to add a “privacy filter” before it can be used at US airports after another trial.
Newham has experienced an outbreak of knife crime with a particular impact on young people. The most recent knife fatality in the borough was Michael Irving, 15, who was stabbed to death a short walk from Stratford station two weeks ago.
Local police have linked the relatively high death rate from knife crime among young people to the fact that Newham has the the youngest population of any London borough.
She said: “Any shopping mall, any youth clubs, anything anywhere that identifies someone that is carrying a knife or gun has got to be good, because we have got to stop this devastation.
“They should be in 33 boroughs and there should also be knife bins everywhere.”