With agents axed, security measures under fire


An MTA security camera hangs above the BMT platform at 59th St. and Lexington Ave. (Photo by flickr user Vidiot)

Next week, the MTA Board will vote to approve a sweeping package of service cuts in an effort to close a budget gap hundreds of millions of dollars wide. Amongst those cuts are the planned elimination of 620 station agents. While layoff notices have already gone out to these employees and the cuts will leave stations with the fewest number of staffers in decades, politicians are voicing their concerns about the MTA’s willingness to sacrifice station security in a post-Sept. 11 era.

In fact, just last week, three high-ranking House representatives who overseen homeland security matters sent MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder a letter urging him to reconsider the station agent cuts. “Although our domestic transit systems have thus far been spared, deadly terrorist attacks in Spain, Great Britain, India and Russia over the last few years have emphasized the vulnerabilities of public transportation in large urban areas and demonstrated the security challenges unique to these open, passenger-heavy systems,” the letter said. It continued, “These cuts may create gaps in the layered infrastructure of local stations. A human presence is important for securing an open transit environment.”

The letter’s authors make it tough to ignore their message. It came from Bernie G. Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and co-signed by Sheila Jackson Lee, chair of the transportation security subcommittee, and Brooklyn’s own Yvette Clark, chair of the subcommittee on emerging threats, and the three noted that the recent guilty plea by Najibullah Zazi thrust domestic terrorism concerns back into the spotlight, a point made last month on one of my recent appearances on the WCBS local news. “The case of Najibullah Zazi is a chilling reminder that our transit systems are targets of Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” they wrote.

For its part, the MTA defended both the planned cuts and the current state of subway security. “The subway system is the safest it’s been in years, thanks to the vigilance and dedication of the N.Y.P.D.,” agency spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “There will continue to be a strong presence of M.T.A. employees throughout the subway system.”

Yet, another story about the MTA’s security cameras betrays the authority’s assurances. According to a report in today’s amNew York, half of the subway system’s 4313 security cameras aren’t working properly. According to Heather Haddon, these cameras “are unable to power up or are suffering from software glitches.”

In the past decade, the MTA has installed cameras across the system at subway turnstiles, platforms and tunnels to combat crime and fare beating. But of the 2,000 cameras that only records footage and are placed around the turnstiles, nearly half aren’t working because they were never fully rigged, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said…

Another 1,100 cameras located throughout the system that would send live feeds and allow officials to monitor activity in real time are not working because of a software glitch, Ortiz said. The MTA is in a legal dispute with the contractor, Lockheed Martin, but the agency is working with another contractor to make them live. Ortiz couldn’t say when the work will be finished.

Considering that the MTA just added closed-circuit cameras to their new R160s, this is a dismaying development. One of the reasons for this security problem is the MTA’s on-going legal fight with Lockheed Martin, most recently highlighted by a state comptroller’s report on subway security. The truth remains, however, that if the MTA is going to get rid of station agents, they have to make sure something else is making the system secure and user friendly.

I’ve doubted the station agents’ ultimate impact as a deterrent because they don’t leave the booths and are under no legal obligation to stop a crime in progress, but people may be deterred just by their simple presence, and as the MTA urges people to say something if they see something, someone has to be there to receive the complaint. The intercoms don’t work; the cameras don’t work; and now the the MTA has politicians concerned with homeland security breathing down its back. For better or worse, the authority can’t sacrifice the safety of its system for the demands of its tenuous budget. The agency needs money, and if the feds are so concerned, they could start to funnel more security dollars to the MTA. It would be a start for sure.

Categories : Subway Security

32 Responses to “With agents axed, security measures under fire”

  1. Nesta says:

    It really bothers me that you always say that the station agents “are under no legal obligation to leave the booth to stop a crime”. You never mention the fact that they will be fired no questions asked if they left the booth because of the extremely strict TA rules.

    • What bothers you about that statement? It’s been supported by a New York court, and it’s a defense of the station agents in a way. They take a lot of guff for doing nothing when in fact they can’t and aren’t expected to do anything.

      • Aaron says:

        Is what Nesta said true, that they’re not allowed to leave the booth even in the above-described emergency situation? If so, that certainly changes the appearance a bit from “may choose not to leave the booth” to “is unable to leave the booth.”

        • John says:

          Exactly. If what Nesta said is true, I think Ben should word it differently too. Saying they’re under no legal obligation to leave the booth makes it sound like they could leave if they wanted to, but they just choose not to. But if they would actually be fired if they left the booth, that’s a different story.

          • Nesta says:

            That is what I was trying to say. The way Ben always words it is that the station agents CHOOSE not to leave the booth. This is not true, the TA rules do not allow them to leave the booth. This is a rule that if broken gets a worker fired.

          • petey says:

            agree entirely with this. ‘under no legal obligation to leave’ has a very different ring.

    • Tacony Palmyra says:

      A station agent at York Street last year noticed that I was examining the local street map on the wall, and helpfully got out of his booth to show me directions to Water Street in DUMBO. I guess he was violating TA rules and could have been fired for it? I was astounded and impressed with him. It’s unfortunate that the only time a station agent has ever helped me was apparently an egregious violation of TA policy.

      • Nesta says:

        He was most likely a “roving” station agent. They are supposed to be out of there booths most of the time but most weren’t.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Homeland Security has never a particularly smart or competent agency; it’s more interested in harassing people than in reducing the amount and impact of terrorism. This is just the latest.

    • petey says:

      and it was a gross expansion of the federal government’s size and intrusive power. where were the tea babies then?

  3. Ed says:

    Homeland Security is a collection of smaller agencies, whose main interest before 2002 was in harassing people. The creation of Homeland Security simply allowed them to coordinate their activities, and to harass people more effectively.

  4. Kid Twist says:

    Unions–especially transporation unions and public sector empolyee unions–are among the biggest contributors to both Yvette Clark and Sheila Jackson Lee. This is exactly what I’d expect these two to say.

  5. Rod says:

    What Nesta said is true. If you are outside the booth for any unauthorized reason on your tour of duty is grounds for termination.

  6. Rod says:

    Heck, we have to get permission to use the bathroom

  7. Al D says:

    The state city and feds are always requesting something of the MTA. Well that’s fine, but provide the funding to go along with it. Isn’t the MTA the least funded (as % subsidized) of every transit agency in the nation? Yet, MTA carries soemthing like 1/4 to 1/3 of ALL transit riders in the nation.

  8. Jehiah says:

    I believe the image you use at the top of this article is actually a camera used by the train conductor to know when doors at either end of the platform are clear, not one used for security purposes.

    • Lucien says:

      That is correct.

    • Yes. You’re right. Those cameras are primarily for the conductor, but they serve a security purpose too.

      • Andrew says:

        I don’t think so. They’re aimed at a part of the train that isn’t directly visible from the conductor’s window, and they’re hooked up to a monitor right outside that window. The image isn’t recorded or transmitted anywhere else, and the camera doesn’t rotate or swivel (that would defeat its purpose).

  9. Son of Spam says:

    I’ve doubted the station agents’ ultimate impact as a deterrent because they don’t leave the booths and are under no legal obligation to stop a crime in progress, but people may be deterred just by their simple presence

    Really? Maybe I’m out of touch but I just can’t see how that can be used as a valid argument for keeping these agents in the system. Same with cameras. How in the world are either of these efforts going to prevent any sort of terrorist attack (explosive, biological or chemical) in the system? The only way the system gets safer from terrorist attacks is a massive funding initiative for a dedicated transit police force coupled with a massive sacrifice of civil liberties by the transit-riding public.

    We can’t afford real security, so we waste money on stuff that’s supposed to make us feel safer. This is the price we pay for living in a free society.

  10. They can’t “reconsider the station agent cuts”. The booths they work in are being removed as fast as I type.

  11. ferryboi says:

    Other than that conductor who stepped in and stopped a crime in progress a few years ago, find me ONE instance where a NYC Transit employee either stopped a crime or otherwise saved a rider from harm. They are often locked in their token booth hundreds of feet away from most passengers, way out of the line of sight from any potential trouble.

    • Nesta says:

      Hundred of times a day throughout the system station agents call for police, fire, ems or other TA workers to get items off of the tracks. You asked for one instance, it happens all day everyday. They also notify the command center of unusual occurances that they either witness or passengers report to them.

      • ferryboi says:

        Really, can you give any for instances? Hundreds of times of day, yet in 40 years of riding the subway I haven’t been able to spot one time. In this day and age, everyone and their grandmother has a cell phone, so I’m seriously doubting that the station agent would be the difference between life and death in any situation. A few working intercoms in each station would be just as useful and a heck of a lot cheaper.

      • I’m a little skeptical of the “hundreds of times a day” charge. A few weeks ago, the talking points said 4-6 calls per shift, and now people are saying hundreds of times a day. I’m a little skeptical. Maybe at Times Square, it’s 100 times a day, but everywhere else?

        • Nesta says:

          100 times a day in a system this large that operates 24 hours is hard to believe? I don’t think so. As for the cell phones, they don’t work in the system or have you never been underground.

          • Nesta says:

            Ben you said you’ve heard 4-6 per shift. Well times that by 3 shifts per day then times that for the amount of stations in the system and that is the average number!

          • Alon Levy says:

            Which stations do cell phones not work in? I’m asking because the stations I’ve used, which are subsurface IRT, usually have cell service. I’ve had continuous coverage between 116th and 137th, and sent text messages at 72nd and 66th, without getting off the train.

            • Andrew says:

              Cell phones don’t work in most underground stations. You’ve listed four original IRT stations, three of them only one flight below ground, and two of them adjacent to an elevated station.

            • Tacony Palmyra says:

              The 1 train is above ground at 125th Street, so that’d be the reason for reception from 116 to 137.

              On the platform I can’t get reliable cell reception at any underground station. Signal pops in and out frequently enough to send a text message on the train at certain stations (between 96th and 42nd on the 1/2/3 is one such stretch where I have luck with that), but I can’t really make calls until I’m past the station agent. You can make a call on the platform at 72nd Street? I’m not sure I believe you, although I do know that Verizon’s signal is strong enough to work in a couple stations.

              • Alon Levy says:

                I know the continuous 116th-137th service is because of the elevated section. I’m just saying, even further south, on the original subsurface section I usually get signal at stations. It’s not reliable, but it’s good enough that I can get text messages at a station, write a response, and then send it off at the next station.

                Calls are something different, you’re right – that’s way harder without el sections.

          • ferryboi says:

            No, cell phones don’t work underground, as I’m well aware. But they ahve these things called stairs, and in case of an event where police or fire presence is needed, I’m sure one or two of my fellow NYers would be more than happy to go upstairs and make a call. As I read in the papers last week, many 911 cell calls were made regarding that poor woman hit by a train at 77th St.

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