Maryland this year will consider whether to test a software program in public schools that has been trained to detect guns and alert authorities before the first shot has been fired.

Then-Gov. Larry Hogan recommended the $2.1 million pilot in the last budget proposal of his final term.

But first, Gov. Wes Moore — who inherited the budget after his inauguration on Wednesday — must approve the idea. It’s one of many spending choices Moore must submit to lawmakers on Friday.

The artificial intelligence platform plugs into existing security cameras and recognizes the shapes of guns. Once the system — called ZeroEyes — identifies a gun, it sends a screen capture to a human analyst. Within seconds of verifying the image, the analyst can notify local authorities and school officials through an app, sending a location, the number of armed peopleand a broad description of the weapon. The system also allows users to track the movement of a person carrying a weapon in real time.

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Kieran Carroll, founding member and chief strategy officer at Philadelphia-based ZeroEyes, said he’s hoping the state will greenlight the one-year pilot.

The company’s pitch to make schools safer has received bipartisan support from policymakers wanting solutions, Carroll said.

”What we found is that most people can understand detecting a visible firearm on a school campus is a good thing,” Carroll said.

Last year, the research arm of Everytown for Gun Safety — a gun violence prevention advocate — recorded 176 instances of gunfire on school grounds across the country. In those incidents, 57 people were killed and 148 injured.

State Sen. Justin Ready, a Republican representing Frederick and Carroll counties, said that while he had not heard of the software, “I think we have to be open to these kinds of solutions” in order to protect students and teachers.

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“It sounds like something that is very much worth exploring as a pilot to see if it could be a possible security solution,” said Ready, who serves on the finance committee.

Previously, Ready served for seven years on the committee that reviews the state’s gun and criminal justice legislation. He expressed hesitation around AI technologies, but anticipates he’ll learn more should the issue come before the legislature.

”Obviously, there needs to be safeguards,” Ready cautioned. “Anytime you’re talking about cameras, or images being taken.”

Del. David Moon, who represents Montgomery County, said he’s open to a conversation on the topic of keeping schools safe, but is worried about potential privacy violations. The Democrat had not heard of Hogan’s proposal nor the technology but, like Ready, he urged caution.

“I hope that going forward, this is a bit more of a conversation,” the vice chair of the Judiciary Committee said. “There are obvious possible pitfalls and things that the legislature is going to want to keep checks on.”

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Gun violence prevention researcher Daniel Webster had never before heard of ZeroEyes or their technology, but reviewed their online materials. The co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions examines gun violence prevention through the lens of public health.

Webster forewarned against seeing one possible solution as the only solution to a multifaceted crisis, highlighting the need for gun owners to secure firearms and more youth mental health resources.

“There’s multiple pieces to this,” Webster said.

Traditional law enforcement tactics, such as putting more police officers in schools or frisking students, can be traumatizing and harmful for children and disproportionately criminalize children of color, Webster said.

”So if you can have fewer police officers in schools but have really good technology to respond rapidly, maybe you come out on a net benefit,” Webster said.

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Carroll and his colleagues acknowledge the complex conversations around the topic of gun violence, mental health, privacy and school safety. But while those conversations continue, his team wanted to introduce a proactive solution.

”We’re one layer in a very complex problem set,” Carroll said, describing his team as “pragmatists.”

On a mission to stop mass shootings

Spurred by the 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 people and injured 17 others in Parkland, Florida, a group of former Navy SEALs and military veterans quit their well-paying corporate jobs to try and stop the next one. So, they founded ZeroEyes.

The team created a dataset containing thousands of images of themselves walking around with guns in front of security cameras. Then, they taught a computer to find the guns’ shapes.

Carroll demonstrated the product while a reporter remotely watched a screen similar to what an analyst would see. The screen remained blank until Carroll walked by it with a replica handgun. Instantly, an image popped up on the screen. A red square framed his gun, making it easy to spot.

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If the instance were real, a human analyst — who is trained former military or law enforcement personnel — would then act on what they had seen.

A pilot for gun detection software ZeroEyes has been proposed for Maryland public schools. (Handout)

One analyst can monitor between 5,000-7,000 cameras since they’re not all triggered at once, and the system is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The company does not use facial recognition, and the software does not look for suspicious behavior, which can lead to biased outcomes.

Carroll said the human-in-the-loop system weeds out false positives, and analysts are only seeing images if the system believes a gun is detected. If an image contains a toy gun, the analyst would only alert the school and not law enforcement.

“End users are only gonna get something that that we think is a credible threat,” he said.

ZeroEyes frequently tests and updates their algorithms, reviews data and makes improvements. As for false negatives, there would have to be an instance where ZeroEyes missed a gun and police responded to an event, he said.

“We don’t have one of those that we know about,” Carroll said. “Knock on wood.”

Selling points like this are what have landed ZeroEyes in front of private companies, legislators and governors around the country, including here in Maryland.

Hogan, propelled by the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 21 people and injured 17, “wanted a complete evaluation of school safety resources and initiatives,” Hogan spokesperson Mike Ricci wrote in an email.

Ricci explained that Hogan’s chief of staff received a budget item for ZeroEyes in August and followed up with the public safety team. Hogan then marked funds for a test run.

The initial pitch to the Hogan administration suggested installing software on 5,000 existing security cameras in school jurisdictions of the state’s choosing, Carroll said. He added, “But we’re open to negotiation.”

Although their product has sparked interest with others in Maryland, the pilot could mark its first venture into the state. As the budget advances, the team at ZeroEyes will be watching what Moore will do. The company has hired a lobbyist, who Carroll said was “very linked up with the incoming administration.”

“We like Governor Moore for a bunch of reasons, to include that he’s a military veteran. We’re heavily veteran here,” he said. “We think that, hopefully, we operate along the same same wavelength.”

The Maryland State Education Association — the state teachers union — and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland also say they’ll be watching. Both declined to comment on the technology but said they would be following the issue.

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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