The Intro 650 Debate: NYC's Controversial Threat-Detector Legislation

Legislation, in the form of an introductory bill called Intro 650, is pending in the New York City Council that sets forth limitations on the ownership, purchase, and placement of threat detectors in New York City.  The legislation was initiated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and introduced to the Council by Peter Vallone, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety Committee. When and if it passes review by the Council and Mayor, Intro 650 will be promulgated as a local law.

The stated purpose of Intro 650 is to better protect the citizens of New York City by, among other things, distribution – controlled by the New York Police Department (NYPD) – of detectors that meet technical and operations standards set by the NYC departments of health and environmental protection (and by the NYPD). By some accounts, the impetus for the bill came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), allegedly because DHS may want to see it used as a model for similar bills in other U.S. cities.

Intro 650 has encountered strong opposition, though, from a large number of labor unions and a broad spectrum of community-based civil liberties, environmental, academic, health-care, and public-interest organizations, including (but not limited to) the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, the Public Health Association of New York City, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the United Federation of Teachers, and the New York State Public Employees Federation.

One of the principal concerns of these groups is that the bill might give the NYPD broad new powers that would threaten the public’s safety by hindering access to critical public health information – such as that independently collected for environmental monitoring.  A number of modifications to the bill, supported by at least some of the organizations opposing Intro 650, also are being reviewed by the Council.

Status Uncertain – But Some Relevant Questions

The final status of the bill is unclear at this time, but what is very clear is that Intro 650 is viewed by many if not all of the groups opposing it as an ill-advised attempt to respond to (or perhaps avoid) some weighty threat response questions – questions that are faced everyday in the homeland security community, and that directly involve the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to protect both the American people and the property of private citizens.

Among those questions are the following: (1) How should the government (national, state, or local) prevent the use of sub-standard detectors and/or detectors that do not meet national consensus standards of performance? (2) How does the government prevent the use of detectors that have not only been validated by an independent third party but also validated to the extent that there is a high level of confidence in the detector’s performance?  (3) How does the government ensure that those who operate the detectors are trained to the point that they do not incorporate human error into the test results? (4) What should be the role of emergency responders, health officials, and law-enforcement officials when a legitimate threat is detected?  (5) What should be done to ensure that the manufacturers, purchasers, and users of threat detectors are all working together toward the same high standards needed to ensure that public safety is the highest priority of all parties involved?  

Without passing specific judgment on the various substantive claims of those who oppose Intro 650, it seems fair to say that the proposed bill has at least provided much-needed visibility to a helpful checklist of standards, ethical considerations, and responsibilities – within and involving the threat-detector community – that should be fully addressed not only in New York City but on a nationwide level.

If the system proposed under the current legislation is not acceptable, then it is important that all Intro 650 stakeholders – the City Council and NYPD, the opposition groups, health and environment officials, and everyday private citizens – reach consensus agreement on a substitute bill and/or on some other way to ensure that all components of the threat-detection and -response algorithm are up to standard and that the public is fully protected in a reliable and effective manner. 

diana hopkins
Diana Hopkins

Diana Hopkins is the creator of the consulting firm “Solutions for Standards.” She is a 12-year veteran of AOAC INTERNATIONAL and former senior director of AOAC Standards Development. Most of her work since the 2001 terrorist attacks has focused on standards development in the fields of homeland security and emergency management. In addition to being an advocate of ethics and quality in standards development, Hopkins is also a certified first responder and a recognized expert in technical administration, governance, and process development and improvement.

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