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Portable and stationary metal detectors give you an edge over even the most creative detainees.

April 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

Most handheld metal detectors range in size from a cricket bat to an ice cream bar, but Garrett's Enforcer G-2 and the Seeker One by Mogul Co. are so compact and lightweight that they will fit into a shirt pocket. These little wonders can find even the smallest weapon, yet will easily fit in the palm of your hand.

Handhelds use a combination of audio signals, visual alarms, and silent vibration to alert the user when metal objects are encountered. The intensity of each response indicates the relative size of the object. As with the stationary units, the best handheld scanners can be easily programmed to compensate for background metals in floors, surrounding areas, and even on the operator's person. In order to meet the unique requirements of field work, handheld detectors should also feature an automatic battery check and easy battery installation.

A male officer can perform a search on a female subject using a wand-type detector.

Typical handheld models can detect objects at the following distances:

  • Medium-size pistols from a distance of 9 inches
  • Large pocket knives from up to 6 inches
  • Razor blades from up to 3 inches
  •  Hatpins from up to 1 inch

Whether a stationary or portable detector is used, it is imperative that the operating officers receive extensive training on the specific equipment that they will be using. It is also highly advisable that the detector either meet or exceed FAA standards.

When choosing a detector for police use, there are four factors to be considered: effectiveness, ease of use, cost, and officer and public safety.

Vendors should provide information about warranties, the convenience and timeliness of repair services, and the availability of loaner replacements during repair. As with any product, caveat emptor. While some officers sing the praise of a particular product line, others strongly caution against the purchase of certain non-FAA-approved products.

Non-Metallic Weapons

Despite their effectiveness in finding potentially lethal weapons, metal detectors are no panacea. Some devices are less dependable than others, and none of them are apt to hit on a drug (depending on what the stuff's been cut with) or silicon-edged weapons.

The primary problem is that there is a growing array of nonmetallic weapons, ranging from ceramic knives to plastic guns that can be tucked underneath jackets and smuggled past metal detectors. There are even 9mm semi-automatic weapons that can now be easily altered to go through a metal detector once certain metal parts have been replaced with ceramics and plastics.

As with the advent of every better mouse trap, some enterprising soul is always working to come up with the better mouse.

That is why security measures often entail use of canines and imaging technology to supplement metal detectors.

Experts say that the road to creating a metal detector replacement could still be a long and arduous one. One new technology uses millimeter wave imaging to detect radiation emanating from a person's body, displaying a clear outline around any object that stands between the body and the detector.

Engineers say, however, that the primary advantage of the millimeter-wave system may also be its weakness. The technology's ability to see through clothing and build a crisp image may create privacy issues among the public.

In addition to the privacy issue, engineers still need to deal with other inherent problems, including cost. While stationary metal detectors can run about $5,000, experts believe that millimeter-wave systems will not be available for less than $50,000 apiece-and quite probably will be closer to $100,000.

Ultimately, aviation experts believe that real security will require far more than millimeter-wave detection systems. Some believe that airports will need to look beyond the weapon and focus on the person as well. By using such tools as biometric and physiometric profiling, officials hope to do on-the-spot background checks and look for signs of unusual and/or nervous behavior.

Such extreme measures might one day be necessary, but whether such techniques can be employed may ultimately depend on the will of society.

Still, for cost effectiveness and practical security, law enforcement can do a lot worse than the metal detector when looking for that elusive and lethal "needle" in the haystack.

For more information on weapons detector products contact the following companies:
Control Screening
Ranger Security
Torfino Enterprises

Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a longtime, regular contributor to POLICE. He can be reached at

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