On March 6, eight Northeast High School students were shot while waiting to catch a city bus at Rising Sun and Cottman Avenues, a bustling Northeast Philadelphia intersection. Seven sustained non-life-threatening injuries; one 16-year-old boy was shot nine times in the torso and rushed to the hospital. The diverse school community of 3,450 students was so shaken that Northeast instituted full virtual learning for the next two days.

While the shooting rocked the city, it represented the continuation of a recent trend: As overall shootings in Philadelphia have declined, violence on its transit system has not. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is grappling with the most shocking gun violence in recent memory — 15 people shot, two fatally, over four days in March. Students and parents at Northeast said the shootings on March 6 were just another reminder of how dangerous life in Philadelphia can be. 

Maria Macedo, 15, said her family moved from Brazil two years ago to seek better lives. Since then, the teen has come to believe that Philadelphia is no better than her native country. “Everything is the same, there’s no difference,” said Macedo, who lives near the intersection and heard the gunfire that wounded her classmates. “Economically, and the violence, it’s the same thing.”

In her first budget address on March 14, Mayor Cherelle Parker acknowledged that pain. “The shootings last week — over four days, all on or near SEPTA buses — left our city shaken,” she said. But in the midst of a year with record violence, The Trace has learned that SEPTA tried, and then aborted, a new tactic aimed at bringing peace. In December, with no public comment, officials ended a contract with ZeroEyes, a company that manages an early AI-based gun-detection video analytics platform. The Trace also learned that the authority had not spent any of the $5 million state grant it received to implement the technology.

The shuttering came as cities nationwide reassess their relationships with companies that try to detect firearms. Notably, in Chicago, Mayor Brandon Johnson recently announced the final extension of a contract with SoundThinking, the company that makes the acoustic gunshot-detection tool ShotSpotter, before the city phases out the technology. 

In many cities, questions around such tools revolve in part around their ethics — including questions about whether they lead to more police pat-downs in certain neighborhoods — but, in Philadelphia, most agree that the issue was its effectiveness.

In separate interviews, SEPTA and ZeroEyes officials agreed that SEPTA’s mostly analog cameras were incompatible with the company’s software, which is designed to work with modern digital cameras.

What Is ZeroEyes, and How Did It Get To Philly?

In November 2022, SEPTA selected ZeroEyes to launch a pilot program aimed at reducing gun violence on train platforms. ZeroEyes was founded in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2018 by a group of retired Navy SEALs and Special Operations military veterans in response to mass shootings in schools. In announcing the contract, SEPTA officials heralded the first-of-its-kind partnership. “SEPTA is the first major transit system to deploy ZeroEyes solutions, which is used by the U.S. Department of Defense, public school districts and universities, Fortune 500 corporate campuses, and many other organizations across more than 30 states,” a November 2022 SEPTA news release said.

Photos of a gunman and police response in a Philadelphia subway station recorded by ZeroEyes AI gun detection software. Courtesy ZeroEyes

The software is designed to recognize a gun when it’s drawn and send alerts with descriptions and locations of suspects to SEPTA police in three to five seconds. It was integrated with 300 of SEPTA’s 31,000 existing cameras from December 2022 through last December, transit officials said.

Sam Alaimo, a ZeroEyes founder, said that when he was in the military, he didn’t expect to see similar violence in Philadelphia. He wanted to do something about it. “Let’s talk about ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Let’s talk about gun laws,” he said in a March 11 interview. “At the end of the day, we have software that works right.” 

What Happened to the Grant?

SEPTA applied for and received a $4.99 million grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to finance the ZeroEyes pilot. Alaimo said the company got a small fee but none of the grant money and was told by SEPTA officials that half of it would cover overtime pay for transit officers. SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch confirmed that the company never received the grant money because the pilot was not expanded — despite the grant’s title being, “SEPTA ZeroEyes Technology Pilot Project.” The funds, he added, were intended for ZeroEyes implementation and related to SEPTA police overtime.

After The Trace asked how the money was to be spent, Busch said that SEPTA had submitted a modified grant request to the commission on March 12 to re-allocate the funds: $2 million to upgrade camera systems; $500,000 for unspecified technology; and $2.47 million to police overtime to support virtual patrols and new software. Ali Gantz, a spokesperson for the state commission, said it’s not clear how the commission missed the lack of compatibility between SEPTA’s cameras and ZeroEyes’ software. “We’re actively working with SEPTA to ensure that the funding is being used to accomplish the goals that it is intended for.”

Mismatched Cameras

ZeroEyes suggested that SEPTA use some of the grant money to replace analog cameras with digital cameras, a suggestion to which, Alaimo said, transit officials were not receptive.

“We didn’t realize how degraded and old and poor the camera infrastructure was at SEPTA,” Alaimo said. “We lost a significant amount of money working with SEPTA for a year, a significant amount of money and time.” Alaimo said ZeroEyes is open to working with SEPTA if it upgrades its cameras.

SEPTA Police Captain Daryl Jones said that during the latter part of the pilot, the software failed to detect some guns during tests conducted by plainclothes transit police officers, which factored into the decision.

“ZeroEyes, while it’s very good technology, it’s new technology, and it just didn’t fit our environment, in general, because we have so many analog cameras,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to have a false sense of security.”

While crimes committed on transit authority property dipped slightly in 2023 — to 1,059 incidents compared to 1,064 incidents in 2022 — the most serious crimes inched up or changed little, according to data provided by SEPTA. Homicides jumped from two in 2022 to six last year, robberies rose from 224 to 230, and aggravated assaults declined from 111 to 108.

In three consecutive March shootings on SEPTA property — a 27-year-old man fatally shot in the chest after stepping off a bus on Castor Avenue; the shooting of five people boarding a bus on Ogontz Avenue that killed a 17-year-old boy; and the fatal shooting of a 37-year-old man on a city bus on Snyder Avenue — police are still looking for gunmen. 

The shuttering of the ZeroEyes pilot came in the same month that Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro signed a bill requiring the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to have jurisdiction over crimes committed on and near SEPTA property. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional because it usurps his authority as the city’s elected prosecutor. SEPTA filed a motion supporting the law, known as Act 40. 

Responding to a Violent Transit System

The outbreak of gunfire in March prompted Parker to reach out to federal law enforcement agencies for help in catching the shooters and in assuring Philadelphians that public safety is a top priority. At a March 11 news conference, during which the mayor was flanked by Krasner and officials from the city and SEPTA police departments, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, officials announced the arrest of two of four suspects for the bus stop shooting that injured the eight students; a third suspect was arrested March 12. 

“I’ve heard you tell me that you are afraid and concerned about riding SEPTA. You have told me that you have concerns about going to work, to school, to the store to get medicine,” Parker then told residents. “I need you to know that I hear you.”

While police try to find the fourth suspect and the motives of the three they captured, parents and students at Northeast High School are still trying to process the trauma. Narayan Sharma’s daughter usually walks to school, but when classes resumed, he drove her. “We came to the United States from Bhutan 12 years ago. We’re very thankful to be here,” said Sharma, who fled his south central Asia homeland because of religious persecution. Now, after completing law school, he’s studying to take the bar exam.

“People outside of America have high expectations about this country. It’s unbelievable to anyone in the world that America is unable to protect its kids,” he said. “So, I feel very insecure and I thought I should drive my child to school.”