Archive for Subway Security

In an effort to assess the way air flows between the subway and the surface, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and the NYPD launched the first day of the Subway-Surface Air Flow Exchange today. The tests involve air sampling throughout the city’s subway system and the release and tracking of harmless gases called perfluorocarbons. The gases were dispersed this morning during the rush hour commute, and the air sampling is expected to wrap by 3 p.m. today.

The S-SAFE study has been funded through a Department of Homeland Security grant and is designed to better prepare the city for a potential gas attack. “The NYPD works for the best but plans for the worst when it comes to potentially catastrophic attacks such as ones employing radiological contaminants or weaponized anthrax,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in a statement about the program. “This field study with Brookhaven’s outstanding expertise will help prepare and safeguard the city’s population in the event of an actual attack.”

According to the MTA, this study is the largest one focused ever urban airflow ever conducted and will help researchers “better understand the risks posed by airborne contaminants.” In the past, researchers have determined that air quality is ostensibly the same below ground as it is above, but the way air is dispersed throughout the city — through the push and pull of trains — has yet to be studied. I doubt the S-SAFE results will be made public, but the findings would make for an interesting look at how air or gases from the Rockaways could reach Times Square in an hour.

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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My long-standing series at the Transit Museum continues tomorrow, Wednesday, June 5, and this time, I’ll be talking transit security with Joseph Nugent, the liaison between New York City Transit and the New York Police Department. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, Nugent and I will be discussing the extensive security measures — some visible, some not — in place to protect transit riders in New York. It’s not an easy task as the system is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and unmanned access points exist throughout the five boroughs.

Some background on my guest: Nugent is the interagency liaison between the New York Police Department and New York City Transit. He began his career as an officer with the NYC Transit Police Department in 1985, and was promoted to sergeant in 1993. In 2002, he became a lieutenant with the NYPD, retiring in July 2005. Before starting in his current position, he worked as an NYCT investigator in employee misconduct and workplace violence, and later as counterterrorism liaison. He received a B.S. in Business Management from St. Francis College in 2000, and a Masters in Public Administration from Marist College in 2009.

As always, Problem Solvers takes place at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn, and the program starts at 6:30 p.m. with doors at 6. Admission is free, but the Museum asks that you kindly RSVP right here. See you then.

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My long-standing series at the Transit Museum continues next Wednesday, June 5, and this time, I’ll be talking transit security with Joseph Nugent, the liaison between New York City Transit and the New York Police Department. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, Nugent and I will be discussing the extensive security measures — some visible, some not — in place to protect transit riders in New York. It’s not an easy task as the system is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and unmanned access points exist throughout the five boroughs.

Some background on my guest: Nugent is the interagency liaison between the New York Police Department and New York City Transit. He began his career as an officer with the NYC Transit Police Department in 1985, and was promoted to sergeant in 1993. In 2002, he became a lieutenant with the NYPD, retiring in July 2005. Before starting in his current position, he worked as an NYCT investigator in employee misconduct and workplace violence, and later as counterterrorism liaison. He received a B.S. in Business Management from St. Francis College in 2000, and a Masters in Public Administration from Marist College in 2009.

As always, Problem Solvers takes place at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn, and the program starts at 6:30 p.m. with doors at 6. Admission is free, but the Museum asks that you kindly RSVP right here. See you on Wednesday.

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As part of its ongoing look at anxiety and the way we live, The New York Times has published a piece by Kimberly Matus about being a subway groping victim, and it is a must-read for New Yorkers. While the focus on underground crime tends to coalesce around reported thefts of electronics and handheld devices, groping is a far bigger concern for many law enforcement officials as these crimes are rampant and often go unreported.

Matus, in her piece, discusses her experiences on a very crowded train, how undercover officers spotted the groping and were able to arrest the perp and how the incident left her fearful of future subway rides. It’s not always as clean and simple as that. From those who flash women in the subways to lewd comments to inappropriate touching, this behavior is rampant and unacceptable. It can lead to concerns over personal safety and fears over riding the subway. Absent an aggressive targeted campaign of enforcement efforts, the subways remain a hotbed for these types of sexual assaults. [The New York Times]

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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Let’s take a familiar conceit from The French Connection and revise it for the 21st Century: What if Jimmy Doyle’s foil had a stolen iPhone? That is the premise of this New York Times Crime Scene article in which one Queens woman goes from unlucky to lucky thanks to Apple’s “Find My iPhone” app.

As Michael Wilson relates, a woman, like so many New Yorkers these days, found her phone unceremoniously snatched from her hands while walking in Queens. When she flagged down a cop and called up her phone’s location, the blue dot revealed a perp on 7 train crossing the borough above. Officers tried to spot the thief but finally had to ask Transit to halt the train. A well-timed phone call revealed the stolen phone, and victim and technology were soon reunited.

This tale at least has a happy ending, but most of these stories do not. Thefts of devices, especially from subway cars, has pushed crime totals up over the last few years, and most pick-pockets aren’t quite so foolish as to leave that phone turned on. So just think of this as a modern-day chase beneath the city’s looming elevated trains but without so much of the dramatic tension.

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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Help Point intercoms are set to arrive at 102 subway stations throughout the city. Photo by Felix Candelaria for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

For the better part of a decade, the MTA has been throwing a slogan at its riders. “If you see something, say something,” screams print ads, TV commercials, in-system announcements, placards, posters and everything else in between. The trademarked phrase has been leased out to transit agencies around the world and has become a hallmark of subway systems everywhere. The only problem is that you can’t anything when you see something because there’s no one around to listen.

Last Monday, as I was journeying back from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn, I got on board the IRT at the southern end of the 96th St. entrance. As the stop between 93rd and 94th on Broadway is just a few blocks from my parents’ place, I’ve been using that station my entire life. Lately, though, it’s changed as the booth is no longer staffed 24 hours a day. The lone station attendant sits outside of the fare control area in the new headhouse at 96th St.

When I reached the turnstiles, a pair of guys were hanging out around the entrances. These guys were swipe sellers. They had jammed the turnstiles with folded-up Metrocards, and I guess were trying to sell unsuspecting riders a swipe. They weren’t particularly good at their scheme as they failed to engage two people struggling to make heads or tails of the Metrocard Vending Machines and didn’t react when I pulled out one of cards to swipe through. Still, I figured I would tell someone if I could find anyone.

As I waited for the train to show up, I walked the entire length of the platform and hopped up the stairs at the north end of the station. I couldn’t catch the booth attendant’s eye and found no other MTA employee or NYPD officer around. I saw something; I wanted to say something; and I couldn’t. The MTA’s own staffing decisions and budget cuts had, for better or worse, rendered their slogan incompatible with the reality of the situation. Eventually, my train arrived, and I left to head back home.

It seems I’m not the only one wondering if the MTA’s ubiquitous ad campaign has reached its end. In this week’s New York Magazine, Dwyer Gunn argues against the anti-terrorism slogan. Noting that the campaign hasn’t really netted anyone terrorists and that New Yorkers are immune to weird goings-on underground, Gunn believes that the signs themselves posted in token booths block station agents’ views of their realm. While some minor criminals have been caught, tips to the MTA’s own hotline are relatively sparse, and the constant announcements concerning rider awareness are lost in the noise shuffle.

Gunn’s critique though is missing what I’ve mentioned as the biggest problem: There’s no one to tell. Unless one sees a ticking bomb, how many people are going to try to find that one employee somewhere? What if that one employee is across the street with no free transfer available as is the case at, say, Bergen St. along the IND Culver Line? Train arrives, person leaves, threat of whatever level goes unreported.

Perhaps, though, the MTA is onto something. After a successful pilot, Transit announced on Friday afternoon that the Help Point intercoms will be rolled out to 102 stations as part of the current five-year capital plan. The MTA had initially announced a system-wide rollout earlier this March. With two buttons — one for emergencies and one for contact with the station booth — the blue-light intercoms resemble those found on college campuses across the country.

“The Help Points are, figuratively speaking, light years ahead of the current units that customers see in subway stations,” NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said. “They will be available to access both information and assistance during emergencies. When coupled with countdown clocks, they add up to the most significant customer communications improvements to be installed in the station environment in a generation.”

Eventually, these intercoms will be everywhere, but for now, it’s a start. At the least, those of us looking to report something — a suspicious bag, shady characters attempting to scam or intimidate other rides, a crime in progress — won’t be left empty-handed. As long as the person on the other end of the line is willing to act and move quickly, saying something after seeing something might not seem as futile as it does today.

Categories : Subway Security
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A few weeks ago in early April, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released his eighth progress report on the state of the MTA’s capital security program. For a variety of reasons not related to the content of the report, I didn’t have a chance then to cover it then, but it’s worth our attention. As DiNapoli has noted in the past, thanks in part to a legal spat with a contractor and in part to ambitious expectations, the MTA has simply been unable to meet its schedule for implementation.

DiNapoli’s latest missive, available here as a PDF, sheds little light on what the MTA is doing. The bulk of that information has been omitted for security reasons. But the work accomplished has not moved along briskly. The so-called Phase 1 projects wrapped in February with the notable exception of the electronic security program, and that program is two years late and significantly over budget.

The original security program was a part of the 2000-2004 Capital Plan, submitted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. At the time, the MTA expected to spend $591 million on a variety of security improvements targeting the most vulnerable and high-trafficked areas. Spending has ballooned to $882 million, and as we approach the 11th anniversary of the attacks, the electronic monitoring project, seemingly the centerpiece of Phase 1, is not expected to be ready until June 2014. By itself, it will cost $516 million, nearly double the original projection.

Electronic monitoring is fairly self-explanatory. The MTA plans to install 3000 cameras and 1400 access-control devices that are to be monitore at six area command centers and one central command center. Once this monitoring system is up and running, though, the challenges do not stop. As DiNapoli said, “Once installed, maintaining these devices in the mass transit environment will be an ongoing challenge.”

The challenges causing this delay are not entirely surprising. Four various agencies are trying to work in concert to bring 21st century equipment into a late-19th/early 20th century system. Electronics storage rooms frequently overheat; fiber optics networks degrade rapidly; and more facilities have been required. As DiNapoli notes, “Nearly half of the increased cost is due to the inclusion of additional facilities ($110 million), with most of the balance due to unplanned costs associated with facilities to house the command and control centers ($51 million) and the upgrading and repair of computer networks ($33 million).”

Meanwhile, the MTA and Lockheed Martin are fighting over the original contract. Lockheed claims the MTA did not provide needed access while the MTA has filed a counter-suit alleging various breaches of contract. The suits were filed three years ago, and the parties are still arguing.

While DiNapoli’s report doesn’t touch upon the ultimate issue, it’s worth a brief digression: Is this spending worth it? The New York City subways have been targeted in failed terrorist attacks. Thanks to better monitoring of terrorist threats, the feds and the NYPD have been able to head off attacks before they reach critical stages. Yet, our system remains a vulnerable target whether we like to dwell on that or not. To combat that, the MTA must spend on security, and it must spend on maintaining the security system for the foreseeable future. That’s not a cheap proposition, and I’m sure there’s a right or good answer here.

DiNapoli, though, tried to find some optimism. The MTA will be deferring six security projects to do the ever-popular lack of funding, but the authority has made some strides. “While the MTA’s capital security program has taken far longer and cost more than planned to complete, the regional transit system is more secure and the public better protected today,” DiNapoli said. “Further security improvements are needed and finding the necessary resources must be a priority for the MTA.”

Categories : Subway Security
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The NYPD has released subway crime figures for the first two months of the year, and yet again, grand larceny numbers are up markedly. In February, the police received 126 grand larceny reports — up by 35 over February 2011 — and the year-to-date numbers show a similar increase. Grand larcenies are up 39 percent, and robberies are up 47 percent.

The numbers, of course, are alarming, but we know what’s fueling these increases: device thefts. Unsuspecting straphangers are too busy playing Angry Birds to notice their vulnerability. Thus, grab-and-go larcenies become more common. According to officers I’ve spoken with, iPads have quickly become the most popular devices since they’re worth the most, and iPhones are a constant target as well. Even as the subways are significantly safer now than they’ve been in years, we should still remain aware of our surroundings, as one of those endlessly annoying subway announcements makes perfectly clear.

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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Created specifically for the subway environment, the Help Point is designed to be an easily recognizable communications tool for customers who need to either report an emergency or ask for travel directions. Photo by Felix Candelaria for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

As we learned yesterday that the MTA wants to introduce its “On The Go” screens to a wider audience, today we find out that another pilot program may get the green light. The MTA’s blue-light Help Point intercom system has been tabbed for a system-wide rollout, according to a New York 1 report.

The Help Point system, designed by Antenna Design back in 2005, made its debut in early 2011. The intercoms, similar to devices found on college campuses around the country, connect straphangers with an MTA information center or an emergency line, as the case may be. For the past year, they have been in place at 23rd St. and the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall stop along the Lexington Ave. Line.

Tina Redwine has more on a system-wide expansion:

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say help for subway riders is on track to be just a push button away, with the Help Point Intercom. The MTA installed the machines at a couple of stations last April in a pilot program and now the agency will install one on every platform at every subway station citywide…

“It’s going to make people feel more safe,” said a rider. “Some people try to rob people’s stuff and now all you need is a button and the cops will be here to help you,” said another.

The MTA has had so-called “customer assistance intercoms” underground for years, but how well they assist is hard to say. The MTA says the new intercoms will be wireless, with a blue beacon to show where they are. They will be built camera-ready, but the MTA says it would be too expensive to put cameras in them for now.

Last year, I reported that the two-station pilot, which included intercoms every 150 feet, cost the MTA $300,000. A similar system-wide deployment would have cost $139,800,000, but the MTA, as NY1 notes, will place just one device on every platform instead of four or five. That will clearly reduce the capital expenses for this project.

In a way, then, these devices provide an on-platform solution for customer safety. As long as someone is at the other end of the intercom, passengers can summon help at the push of a button. Seems like a good idea to me.

Categories : Subway Security
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Even as they tore down token booths across the city, the MTA erected a new one at South Ferry in 2008. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

For the past few years, the MTA has waged if not a war then an assault on station booths. The once-ubiquitous boxy structures that were the home to token agents and then the jack-of-all/no-trades station booths have been axed along with the employees who used to work in them. Even though the MTA’s finances may some day recover, the station booths have been physically removed from many stations, and only those that remain will be staffed.

When the MTA first announced the decision to axe station employees and their booths, I viewed it as one that would challenge perception rather than impact reality. The tangible impact would come in the arena of fare-jumping as once-reluctant hoppers would climb off the turnstiles with impunity. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people would continue to pay.

The perception of safety though presented a real concern. Although station agents are not authorized to stop crimes and in fact are instructed not to leave their booths, they provide another set of eyes and a lifeline to a telephone that can be used to summon the authorities. Although station agents have made headlines for falling asleep as their posts, if anything, the presence of a station agent can be comforting to someone not so keen on a late-night subway ride, and today, those security blankets are dwindling.

Last week, Pete Donohue took the MTA to task for its whole-scale eliminate of station agents. Instead of Occupy Wall St., an amorphous protest against everything and nothing, New Yorkers, he wrote, should be protesting the MTA’s decision to remove personnel from the subway system. “I always feel safer when I see someone in the box,” he said, “particularly late at night when there are fewer riders around.”

Donohue reimagines the role of the station agent:

Occupy the Booth would protest the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s staff reductions in subway stations and demand more uniformed MTA personnel to help straphangers and tourists. If the job of assisting riders leaves these workers with extra time, have them occasionally pick up a broom and tidy the place, or maybe change a light bulb or shoo away the rats.

The MTA shuttered booths to cut expenses and close budget gaps. The pink-slipped clerks were directed to report to a former public school in Brooklyn that the MTA had taken over for use as a training facility. There, they had to turn in their uniforms, keys and badges. It was a sad parade of civil servants, many of them single mothers, carrying their transit gear in black plastic garbage bags. In the past, when senior executives were shown the door, they received full salary for one year as severance. The clerks got a MetroCard.

The vacant booths remained in place. Police made use of a few: They covered the glass with newspaper on the inside and cut peep holes to spy on swiper scammers at nearby turnstiles, hoping to catch them in the act. I’m not so sure it was terribly effective. It was a swiper who told me about the strategy in a Bronx station when I wondered about the newsprint curtains. The cubicle must have been empty. Two teen-agers with backpacks hopped the turnstile and no police emerged. The booths mostly served as big boxy reminders that you’re paying more for less. Then they started disappearing.

I never shed too many tears over the departure of the station agents. They were useful a few times a day for certain riders unfamiliar with the city and the system, and they’re still nominally in place in at least one booth in every station. Yet, if the MTA and its unions had reconstructed the role of the agent to take ownership of his or her station, to be a face, to take a broom and sweep up now and then, perhaps the authority wouldn’t have been so quick to remove the station booths themselves forever, thus lending an air of permanence to the whole thing.

Of course, the unions would be rightly concerned with employee safety, and with rising assault numbers, those concerns would likely be justified. But instead, the MTA has effectively cut off its station booth nose to spite its face. These booths aren’t coming back any time soon, and no occupation, for better or worse, would have much of an effect on them.

Categories : Subway Security
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