Village Voice 
Saturday, Jan 11, 2008
Damn you, Osama bin Laden! Here’s another rotten thing you’ve done to us: After 9/11, untold thousands of New Yorkers bought machines that detect traces of biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. But a lot of these machines didn’t work right, and when they registered false alarms, the police had to spend millions of dollars chasing bad leads and throwing the public into a state of raw panic.
OK, none of that has actually happened. But Richard Falkenrath, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, knows that it’s just a matter of time. That’s why he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have asked the City Council to pass a law requiring anyone who wants to own such detectors to get a permit from the police first. And it’s not just devices to detect weaponized anthrax that they want the power to control, but those that detect everything from industrial pollutants to asbestos in shoddy apartments. Want to test for pollution in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of childhood asthma? Gotta ask the cops for permission. Why? So you “will not lead to excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety,” the first draft of the law states.
Last week, Falkenrath made his case for the new law before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, where Councilman Peter Vallone introduced the bill and chaired the hearing. Dozens of university researchers, public-health professionals, and environmental lawyers sat in the crowd, horrified by the prospect that if this law passes, their work detecting and warning the public about airborne pollutants will become next to impossible. But Falkenrath pressed on, saying that unless the police can determine who gets to look for nasty stuff floating in the air, the city would be paralyzed by fear.
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“There are currently no guidelines regulating the private acquisition of biological, chemical, and radiological detectors,” warned Falkenrath, adding that this law was suggested by officials within the Department of Homeland Security. “There are no consistent standards for the type of detectors used, no requirement that they be reported to the police department—or anyone else, for that matter—and no mechanism for coordinating these devices. . . . Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms . . . by making sure we know where these detectors are located, and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability.”
Vallone nodded his head, duly moved by Falkenrath’s presentation. Nevertheless, he had a few concerns. When the Environmental Protection Agency promised that the air surrounding Ground Zero was safe, Vallone said, independent testers proved that such assurances were utterly false. Would these groups really have to get a permit before they started working? “It’s a good question, and it has come up prior to this hearing,” Falkenrath replied. “What I can assure you is that we will look extremely carefully at this issue of the independent groups, and get the opinion of the other city agencies on how to handle that, and craft an appropriate response.” And if people use these detectors without a permit, Vallone asked, do we really have to put them in jail? Afraid so, Falkenrath answered.