The Metropolitan Police deployed a weapons scanner in the London Borough of Lewisham last night, as the culmination of a week-long series of anti gun crime operations in the Borough. Friday's swoop also identified a radical new use for the Millenium Dome, although the scanner itself seems not to have detected any guns.
A BBC report tells us that police boarded 20 police vans and two London buses at the Dome, then swooped on a pub, a barber's shop and a take-away. Although the BBC says 700 officers were involved, The Register's abacus suggests that total capacity of the vehicles mentioned would be more in the region of 400, depending on how sociable the officers may have been feeling. But there may well have been a total of 700 involved.
A street was cordoned off, and the occupants of the premises were made to walk past the scanner, which found no guns. 14 people were however arrested for other reasons.
The Met has a small number of low intensity X-ray scanners, which it has previously offered to schools as weapons detectors, but it's also possible that the scanner is a 'weapons detector' it announced last year.
The Met declined to discuss the workings of the scanner when it was announced, but it is not exactly a secret. It is a Millimetre Wave Camera developed by QinetiQ, and the technology is particularly applicable for airport security scanners and similar. It works by passively detecting naturally occurring radiation, and as metal objects completely reflect this, they show up well. As the human body reflects 30 per cent of naturally occurring radiation, it sees through clothes and, as QinetiQ coyly puts it, "a person's actual body shape" can be seen. Phwoarrr...
We'll save what happens when people learn these have gone in at an airport for another day - the point about the Met system is that it's intended to be mobile. Yesterday's deployment certainly shows the scanner used is mobile in the sense that it can be moved, but also suggests that it's not exactly pocketable. So this generation of the technology is only likely to be usable with very substantial logistical backing. A fixed, cordonable location that has a good probability of containing illicit weaponry must first be identified, and then police in large numbers have to be coordinated and deployed. Then everybody has to be checked through the scanner.
So from the point of view of the planners it is rather a pity it missed. Some of the 14 arrests that were made will have been likely to have been on the basis of objects or substances detected by the scanner, but you can see the problem; if the scanner is used on a widespread basis but it does not produce a convincing return in terms of guns found, it will tend to operate - and increasingly be seen to operate - as an excuse for all-encompassing area stop and searches.
Its relative lack of mobility is actually its own undoing, because it's heavily dependent on the quality of police intelligence, and it can only be used in conjunction with large, high-profile operations. Pocket ones any police officer could carry and use discreetly might be a more worrying matter from the point of view of liberties, but would be an entirely different matter from the point of view of collateral damage to police-community relations.
A second report of last night's events gives them a more Met-friendly spin. The scanner and relatively unsuccessful outcome of its deployment aren't detailed, but last night "was the culmination of a blitz on drug dens with links to Jamaican gangsters which has seen police seize 15 guns in recent weeks". A total of 60 people have been arrested in Lewisham in the last six weeks, and "police have seized heroin, crack cocaine, 5,000 ecstasy tablets and tens of thousands of pounds in cash."
These totals may or may not be viewed by the Met as representing an overall successful outcome, we simply do not know. It does however seem pretty clear that the hi tech weapons scanner has yet to prove itself as a valuable tool against gun crime. The Met itself last week said that gun crime in London over the past four months has fallen by 300 offences, 15 per cent, and that over the past two years Operation Trident, which focuses on gun crime within the black community, had charged 178 people with gun offences and removed 77 firearms. ®