Just days after it went online, a new security system proved its worth to Hobbs Municipal Schools.
It was a Wednesday evening in mid-June, about 6:30 p.m., HMS Superintendent Gene Strickland told the News-Sun recently. Two young men were riding skateboards in City Park near Murray Elementary, playing what Strickland described as “AirSoft Wars,” a paintball-like game using realistic looking guns that fire small pellets either using compressed gas or a spring-loaded release.
The key here is the realistic appearance of the guns. The newly installed ZeroEyes system uses a mix of artificial intelligence (AI) and trained human observers to identify potential threats of gun violence before the people carrying the weapons can get into a school, business or other protected facility.
Within 90 seconds of the system recognizing the object in one young man’s hand as a gun, confirmed by a person, Hobbs police had contacted the young men in City Park and determined they weren’t doing anything wrong. But it proved to Strickland the system would do its job.
Hobbs Schools first started talking about the Zero-Eyes system last fall. Administrators were looking for the next level of protection for students and staff in keeping with the district’s philosophy of “plan and prepare,” Strickland said.
They looked first at a system that uses audio monitoring to detect gunshots, he said. But that was something he never considered. It didn’t provide the information the district needed and, more important, gunshot monitoring did nothing to prevent a worst-case scenario from taking place.
“If gunshot detection tells me something happened, that’s too late,” Strickland said. “I already know that something has happened; I’ve got a building full of people who know something happened, that a gunshot went off.
“Weapons detection allows me to stay in that ‘prevention’ stage. In all reality, if I detect a gunshot, I’ve already got a victim — emotionally they’re a victim or physically they’re a victim.”
Speed is the secret behind the ZeroEyes system, Strickland and Hobbs Police Department School Resource Officer Carlos Martinez said. Within seconds of the AI detecting what it believes to be a firearm, images from one of the approximately 350 cameras around Hobbs schools are being reviewed by a person, former military personnel trained to recognize weapons, at one of the company’s monitoring headquarters either in Hawaii or Philadelphia, Penn.
If that person determines the system actually detected a gun, alerts are sent back to Hobbs, to designated school personnel and to the Hobbs Police Department’s Emergency Awareness & General Law Enforcement Intelligence Center, the E.A.G.L.E. I.C. From there, local law enforcement are dispatched directly to wherever the individuals are, using digital information that pinpoints each ZeroEyes-connected camera from the almost 800 cameras surrounding every Hobbs Schools campus or facility, Strickland said.
The bottom line is Strickland and Martinez believe the ZeroEyes system will save lives. By detecting a potential armed intruder early, administrators can easily lock them out of an individual campus before they have a chance to get inside and start hurting people, they said. And it gets law enforcement officers moving toward an incident quicker.
“Detection doesn’t stop a threat,” Strickland said. “What it does is allow us to respond in a quicker time frame.”
The 90-second time frame between when the AirSoft gun was detected near Murray Elementary and officers making contact with the individuals “pales in comparison to a national average of a response to a gunshot, upwards of seven minutes,” Strickland said. “We just took advantage of six minutes of time prior to an attack being perpetrated and that’s huge in terms of the lifetime of an incident.”
According to an FBI study of active shooter incidents, almost two-thirds (about 67 percent) ended in five minutes or less, with half of that number ending within two minutes. Zero-Eyes provides officers “the ability to respond quickly and accurately to where these people are located at,” Martinez said. “Based on the coverage, the detection of exactly where the people may be at, we can easily come in and overwhelm them and protect people. (Five extra minutes) means a lot of lives saved.”
Strickland pointed to the July 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso as another illustration of the potential benefits of Zero-Eyes.
“That man started at the back of the parking lot,” he said. “I think the statistic that’s been widely shared is, in north of 90 percent of active shooter events, that gun or that firearm is visible to the naked eye prior to the attack beginning.”
The suspect, Patrick Wood Crusius, who is still awaiting trial, “wouldn’t have been able to make access to that store because they would have been able to lock out that store,” Strickland said. “I don’t know what (Walmart’s) response protocols are, but for us, the response protocol given that same situation would have locked out the campus and nobody would have been able to gain access while we assessed the threat.”
The system isn’t perfect, but it’s learning, Strickland said. Thus the human “in the loop,” checking each potential incident to determine the threat level in real time. Strickland told of one “false positive” from this past summer involving Hobbs High School Principal Alfredo Turrubiates.
Turrubiates was outside the school, talking on his cell phone, when a student approached to ask him a question, Strickland said. On the video of the incident, Turrubiates lowered the phone from his ear in the direction of the student and a combination of the movement at the placement of his hand on the phone caught the attention of the ZeroEyes system.
And each false positive teaches the artificial intelligence a little more. Starting with a vast database of weapons, the AI learns to better recognize anything from cell phones to broom handles to fleeting shadows, all items that could be mistaken for something dangerous.
But Martinez said he and his fellow officers don’t mind the system is still learning. They’d rather be sent out to investigate 100 false positives than face the alternative if the system wasn’t in place, he said.
“If I have to go out there a thousand times and make sure it was nothing, it’s better than the alternative by far,” Martinez said. “If we can get there before anything happens and it turns out to be nothing, it’s nothing. That’s what we get paid for.
The ZeroEyes system is not inexpensive at close to $50,000 per year, Strickland said. When the district first started talking with the Philadelphia-based company, the cost to link all the cameras in the system was cost prohibitive, he said.
The company worked with the district and determined every camera wasn’t needed, Strickland said. But no matter the cost, he said, it’s cheap when considering the bigger picture.
“There’s no amount of money we can ever put a value on a human life,” he said. “That detection at Murray Elementary, it was about 90 seconds between the first detection and officers contacting the individuals.
“That pales in comparison to a national average of a response to a gunshot of upwards of about seven minutes. We’re going to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. (ZeroEyes) allows us to prepare for that individual who wants to do harm. We can’t be everywhere but we can do the best we can to protect the occupants of our campus.”