SEPTA turns to artificial intelligence to scan passengers for potential shooters

The new software is designed to quickly identify when someone draws a weapon gun on the transit system and notify police immediately.

A SEPTA police officer stands on the platform of the Somerset stop

A SEPTA police officer stands on the platform of the Somerset stop on the Market-Frankford line. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New high tech artificial intelligence software is being added to SEPTA’s camera system as part of an effort to make the city’s mass transit more secure.

The system is called Zero Eyes. Acting SEPTA police chief Charles Lawson believes it could help give officers critical seconds to help when a shooter draws a weapon.

“So a human being will receive the alert and verify whether or not it is an actual gun,” Lawson said. “That all takes place before we’re even notified. So it happens seamlessly within a matter of seconds. So once they verify it, we get notified. We’re dispatching police to wherever that gun was brandished.”

The alert will only go out if a gun is taken out in public; the system cannot see a concealed weapon.

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“It would not alert on a weapon that’s holstered,”  he said. “We don’t want it alerting law enforcement all day long. This is a gun on display in someone’s hand, lying alone on the floor, or being dropped. That’s that’s what it’s designed to do.”

The pilot program is expected to begin in January using about 300 of SEPTA’s 30,000 cameras. If it’s deemed successful, the software will be expanded to the entire network of security cameras.

SEPTA is the first mass transit system to integrate the Zero Eyes program into their cameras, Lawson said.

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“SEPTA is committed to a far reaching effort to make our system safe. And we’ll search for, you know, additional technologies that we feel give us an advantage,” he said. “I will not ever be able to put a cop on every single platform, on every train car or every bus across our network. So we think technology is part of the solution.”

Like some other parts of the city, SEPTA has been dealing with increasing crime and violence that’s kept some riders away. According to an NBC10 poll, 63% of respondents believe crime has worsened on SEPTA in the last year. Similarly, The Philadelphia Inquirer found aggravated assaults were up 80% as the pandemic drew riders away.

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