Jersey City officials explored using A.I. to detect guns via CCTV, emails show


Jersey City Department of Public Safety officials explored the possibility of employing a pilot program that uses artificial intelligence through CCTV cameras to detect guns in public areas, emails show.

Photo via Flickr.

By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View

While the program never came to fruition, multiple meetings were held between the Jersey City Department of Public Safety, including Director James Shea, and employees with DARVIS.

Their website describes the company as “an AI-powered real-world analytics platform” that “employs state-of-the-art AI like machine learning, immersive data and advanced computer vision to capture and decode the real-world.”

The emails were shared with Hudson County View by MuckRock, a nonprofit, collaborative news site. The emails were obtained by the nonprofit via an Open Public Records Act request.

The emails, exchanged over a time period from July to December 2019, detail conversations between Jersey City and DARVIS — as well as between JCPS employees.

DARVIS had an initial meeting with city officials in early August, which Shea attended.

Officials later had a web conference in late October, and then again in early December, the emails show.

DARVIS, a company headquartered in San Francisco, is a “privacy-conserving object detection” platform, its founder and CEO, Jan-Philipp Mohr, said.

The company uses optical sensors – in this case, CCTV cameras – to employ artificial intelligence that can detect objects of interest in a targeted space or area.

The company does not use facial recognition technology, or anything similar, to detect humans, but instead attempts to detect specific objects.

“We concentrate on the objects themselves and not on the person,” Mohr said. “We basically totally ignore the person and concentrate entirely on the object, which makes us very different from many other companies out there.”

The company’s primary concentration is in hospital settings, but it began working specifically on a weapon detection program several years ago. It piloted its initial version in Berlin in 2017.

Emails show that DARVIS pitched possibly getting a pilot program going with the city “after the beginning of the year 2020,” according to an October 14th, 2019 email.

Furthermore, here is an exchange between two JCPS employees from September 25th, 2019.

JCPS Director of Communications and Information Technology Robert Baker, Sr.: “Chris, What is this??? I’m getting old!!”

JCPS Project Manager Chris Kearns: “This company is the CCTV add-on that I sat in with the Director. It is very similar to facial recognition/identifying software … [but] they uniquely are trying to solve the problem California is currently experiencing, the line between citizens privacy and the public safety.”

Jersey City spokeswoman Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione said that these meetings and communications were nothing out of the ordinary and that the city has never considered using any facial recognition software.

“[The] city listens to vendor pitches on a regular basis to learn more about technology changes, but to be perfectly clear we are not considering any sort of implementation of facial recognition software at this time. Any characterization otherwise is 100% false.”

She declined to answer any particulars about why the city was exploring a partnership with DARVIS.

DARVIS, which does not use facial recognition technology, says it has a focus on ensuring data privacy.

The artificial intelligence anonymizes recognized humans in real-time, and “gives objects, rooms or streets a voice, to a certain degree,” Mohr said. He said his company pitched Jersey City specifically on curbing gun violence.

“You don’t need to identify everyone just because we want to find the shooter … you want to find the gun to understand where the threat is. You don’t want to find everyone, there’s no reason for that, that would be very privacy infringing,” Mohr said.

“On the one hand security is very important … on the other hand we want to make sure we enable privacy,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than that.”

Jersey City has had trouble with gun violence over the past several years, particularly in the southern end of the city, and the city administration has made curbing shootings a priority.

The city has seen a downward trend. Statistics provided by the city in December showed that 2019 yielded 57 shooting incidents, down from 74 the year before.

Those figures, however, do not reflect how many people have been shot; officials suggested there were 82 shooting victims this year, down from 92 reported in 2018.

The community was also rocked by an act of domestic terrorism on December 10th, where two individuals used heavy weaponry to kill four innocent bystanders, including a police detective. The shooters targeted both Jewish people and law enforcement officers.

“If you are in a community that has any sort of gun violence, it traumatizes people … our goal is to get it where no one has to live anywhere near gun violence,” Mayor Steven Fulop said at an end-of-year press conference. “That’s our objective.”


Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_

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