Archive for Subway Security

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.

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One of the great things about our subway is how it serves as a de facto designated driver. New Yorkers — or at least those who aren’t in charge of the NYPL — shouldn’t have to worry about drinking and driving with a 24-hour subway system. Still, drinking in excess before heading to the subway can make one an easy prey for pickpockets. I know people who haven fallen asleep in the subway only to find themselves 20 minutes past their stop, and sometimes, those folks lose their wallets.

In The Times this weekend, Michael Wilson highlights a thankfully dying art: the pickpocket who will cut out the wallet of a drunk mark. According to the NYPD, exactly 109 regular pickpockets work the trains slipping money and phones out of a neatly severed pocket. As Wilson details, the thieves are mostly male and mostly middle aged. One is 80 years old, and a few have been arrested over 30 times. Their crimes are like science. “They’ll nudge them and see how incoherent they really are,” one police officer said. Then out comes the tool of the trade. “It’s unbelievable they don’t cut the person’s leg wide open. They’re like surgeons with a razor blade, for God’s sake.”

The article is almost tinged with nostalgia. With electronics on full display, pickpockets don’t need to work nearly as hard to score some loot, and one police officer says the cutters going the way of TV repairmen. “It’s like a lost art,” Lieutenant Kevin Callaghan said. “It’s all old-school guys who cut the pocket. They die off.” I doubt they will be missed by straphangers when they all retire.

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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TWU officials and MTA employees went before the City Council yesterday to highlight threats to their personal safety. As both The Daily News and amNew York recount, the numbers are incomplete — police reports 96 felonies up from 82 last year while the union claims 170 reported attacks up from 134 last year — but union brass want the MTA and NYPD to do more to protect bus drivers and subway personnel. “If there were two sanitation workers, or police officers or City Council members being assaulted every week in New York City, they’d call in the National Guard to stop those assaults from happening.” Samuelsen said.

At the hearings yesterday, politicians tried to find a potential scapegoat. TWU officials pinpointed rider frustration over service cuts and general “economic hopelessness” as reasons for the increase but also warned of a general laissez faire attitude toward these attacks. Despite warnings that assaults on MTA employees carry a possible seven-year prison sentence, the MTA and NYPD are not proactive in protecting employees. A bus driver partition program is slowly coming to high-crime bus routes, but beyond that, police presence has remained stagnant.

To combat this problem, the MTA and NYPD have to strike a balance between proper enforcement and targeted patrol. While the increase of nearly 20 percent is shocking, 96 reported assaults out of a few billion total riders is a shocking low number and one hard to decrease. Is this ultimately a hazard of the job or one which deserves more attention and resources? After all, as James Vacca, head of the Council’s transit committee, said, “These people are not just a threat to drivers. They’re a threat to people like myself who are on the train and depend on transit every day.”

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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With the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks dominating the news lately, various anti-terrorism efforts have made headline. The MTA, of course, has burned their “See something, say something” campaign into our collective consciousness over the past few years, and they’ve licensed it to transit and security agences around the world. Now and then, though, groups use it or a derivative slogan without permission, and the authority doesn’t like that.

As The Post detailed last week, the MTA moved to trademark the slogan in 2007 and is now challenging a t-shirt retailers’ attempt and an online security firm’s effort to do the same. Over the years, the MTA has gone after numerous copycats — including a few universities — who haven’t requested permission. Allen Kay, head of the Korey Kay & Partners agency, is steamed when others steal his work too. “I don’t think they have a right to it,” he said. “I live for original ideas. It galls me anytime someone does something derivative — or outright steals. I think that’s despicable.”

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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Signs for the September 11 memorial have appeared in the subway lately. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

It’s impossible to escape the spectre of September 11 right now. As much as I would rather not dwell on the uncertainty and emotion from that terrible day, it is now pervading New York life. New signs at Cortlandt St. point the way to the 9/11 momument, and news outlets of all stripes are covering the decade from every angle.

New York City’s subways were, of course, not at all immune from the impact of 9/11. Physically, the city’s subways were altered. Trains had to be re-routed and stations rebuilt as the falling towers crashed into the subway tubes below. Those weren’t, however, the only changes as security underground became a renewed focus.

Around the world, other cities have seen their subways come under attack. Since September 11, Moscow, Madrid, London and Tokyo have all suffered terrorism-related bombings in their subway systems, but New York’s has so far remain unscathed. That isn’t to say it’s a relatively protected system though. While the MTA has focused its security efforts on high-volume stations and train lines that pass under key infrastructure, the system is porous. Anyone can board a train anywhere and ride it to another destination for the simple swipe of a MetroCard.

With 9/11 looming, the MTA’s security efforts have creeped back into the news lately. New York 1 today offers up a few pieces. One looks at the authority’s increased security efforts while another praises the MTA’s seemingly successful “See Something, Say Something” campaign. According to that report, over 10,000 people called the NYPD to say something in 2010, an increase of over 7000 over 2009. The constant reminders to notice every suspicious plastic bag has at least given the police something to do.

“If there is an event in the the news, people will call more, they’ll see more, they’re paying more attention,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. “If you don’t have any recent events, terrorist events, it’ll seem to fall off some. But generally speaking, I think it’s working well. People are aware of their changed situation.”

Now, the New York 1 pieces are designed to make us feel safer. The MTA, they say, is monitoring thousands of points throughout the system with cameras while some in high-traffic areas — Grand Central, Times Square, Penn Station — provide real-time streams to the NYPD’s high-tech monitoring system. These are necessary measures, but I sometimes wonder if it’s only for show. After all, someone intent on attacking the city’s transit network might know that the busiest stations are also the ones most heavily guarded.

Outside of the city, suburban dwellers are less comfortable with their security. The Daily New Canaan recently questioned Metro-North’s preparedness. As some riders noted, if cops had difficulty locating a stalled train a few weeks ago, how will they respond to a terrorism-related emergency?

Of course, these types of stories simply inspire more theater. People talk about bag inspections for commuter rail passengers, increased police patrols and on-board K-9 units. By stroking fears, lawmakers can push toward an increased police state in our rail network. No one really wants to experience that reality either.

Ultimately, it’s a balancing act. The NYPD and the MTA have to strike a balance between security and theater. They have to project an air of protection without seeming overbearing while working behind the scenes to ensure that the system is protected. We don’t like to think about subway security because we don’t want to think that the subways aren’t safe. We need them; we ride on them; we don’t want to fear them. But this week, security and terrorism are in the news, and subway security remains as it often is — a work very much in progress.

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Every three or four months (January, April), those who cover the subways get to dust off the same old story about crime underground, and today, we have the August edition of that tale. Courtesy of John Doyle and The Daily News, we learn that subway thieves are still targeting electronics as grand larcenies — defined as the theft of a cellular communication device — have risen 28 percent this year, offsetting any gains due to the decrease of more serious subway crimes. “The system is as safe as it’s ever been, but you need to be mindful,” Joseph Fox, the new head of the NYPD’s transit bureau, said. “Be aware when the doors are closing; there are still some people who will reach in and snatch [your belongings].”

As the News notes, felony assaults are down this year, but robberies and grand larcenies mostly concerning iPods, smart phones and iPads are up. Some riders say they won’t use their eReaders underground, which defeats the purpose of carrying them around, but the simple solution is vigilance. Hold onto your stuff; keep an eye on those around you; and use common sense on some of the less crowded subways. “I don’t take my phone out or take a Kindle or iPad out,” Amy Kirkhem said to The News. “I could see it being easy for someone to grab. You don’t want to be careless.”

Categories : Asides, Subway Security
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Ten years ago this month, I set out with a friend of mine on a trip to baseball stadiums around the eastern half of the United States. We spent three weeks seeing the country and enjoyed games at 12 stadiums in 10 cities. We took backpacks into the games, and it was, despite the clichéd nature of the phrase, a carefree time.

And then in September of that year, things changed. Backpacks were viewed suspiciously and banned at sporting events. Passenger screening at airports grew tougher, and armed guards starting popping up everywhere: Penn Station, Grand Central, even sometimes in subway stations. After the 9/11 attacks, the mood changed as security of our nation’s transportation network became a paramount concern.

Over the next few months, we’re going to hear a lot about 9/11 and its implications. With the ten-year anniversary of the attacks looming, retrospects on past decade will emerge to the forefront, and already, we see this trend happening. Yesterday, the AP, in a long-form piece, explored how security underground in the New York City subways has changed since 2001. With armed NYPD officials leading police dogs and carrying radiation detectors fronting the story, the piece is heavy on the surveillance.

For police officers and city officials, armed cops in Penn Station and Grand Central are the way of things now, and we are constantly told to say something if we see something. “This is the new normal,” Inspector Scott Shanley of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Division said to the AP. “The only people who sometimes get raised up are tourists.”

The piece highlights what we know: Madrid, London, Moscow and Minsk are among the cities whose subways suffered terrorist attacks. The cops are diligent in New York, but the system is very porous. “It’s really a potentially very vulnerable environment — one that you can’t totally protect,” William Bratton from Kroll Security said. “That’s the reality of it. … It’s a unique challenge.”

As the article talks tangentially about civil liberties concerns that were quashed by the courts — random bag checks still aren’t very popular — it glosses over the bigger issues: Is all of the outward display of security for good or for theater? “I look at people and who’s to judge?” Robin Gant, a commuter heading to Grand Central said. “You just never know who might be the one. No matter how safe you feel, you’re always on yellow alert.”

There’s a line between a cultivating a culture of fear and working behind the scenes to ensure security. Just how well is it working? Yesterday, a reader sent me the following description of incident that happened to this weekend. I’ll share it in the original:

“I was just on a subway train and there was a brand new backpack, all alone in the car I entered into at 14th St. By the next stop I got off and told the conductor. She listened but didn’t seem to care. That 1 train traveled for OVER 20 MINUTES uptown til the MTA actually did something about it. Finally at 103rd Street, an MTA official came on to the car and just casually took the bag off.

“I imagine the MTA must have some sort of protocol to deal with this type of situation. When they constantly ask us to “say something” if we “see something,” what good is it if a train makes 13 stops before someone inspects a potential bomb? Do you think the train conductor followed protocol? And if so, is that protocol at all effective?”

Over the next few months, I’m going to spend some time exploring those questions. What is the proper protocol? Is it effective? Those are questions that need answering. We see television commercials and a print advertising campaign from the MTA based around exactly the scenario described above, and a backpack sitting alone in a subway car is a red flag. Those are the types of incidents that should be taken more seriously than police officers with guns at Penn Station. Are they or is the security theater just for show?

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MTA going to the dogs

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The award-winning canine and its handler. (Photo via MTA/Patrick Cashin)

If you smell something, bark at something. That could be the newest MTA slogan after their K-9 unit took him first place at the U.S. Police Canine Association 2011 trials for explosives detection. The authority announced that Officer Kevin Pimpinelli and his pup Mullen won the crown last month. The trials tested human/canine enforcement teams on the speed and accuracy with which they can locate explosives while “adhering to accepted searching practices and procedures.” The team beat out 28 others at regionals and seven pairs in the finals.

Pimpinelli spoke glowing off his dog. “I’ve been working with him for five years, and right from day one he’s had an excellent temperament for a police canine,” he said. “I could bring him into a classroom full of kindergarteners and he’d be the gentlest dog you can imagine. And then if I gave the command, he’d instantly be searching for explosives.”

The MTA, meanwhile, praised its K-9 unit overall. “Canines are invaluable partners with capabilities that no human or machine can duplicate” Douglas Zeigler, MTA Director of Security, said. “This national honor helps to confirm that the efforts we have made since 9/11 to create a strong anti-terror canine force have been effective. But the real confirmation can be seen every day on the front lines, where our canines help to keep our railroad customers and employees safe and secure.” So there you go.

Categories : Subway Security
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Let’s try this one on for size: Nine days ago, when President Barack Obama announced the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, the intelligence materials gathered from the terrorist’s Pakistani hideout revealed nascent plans to attack the United States’ rail system at some point in the indeterminate future. For terrorists looking for an easy strike, rail attacks aren’t a new idea. We’ve seen them in Moscow, Tokyo, Madrid and London, to name a few, and rail systems that cover vast expanses remain relatively porous.

So what would you say an appropriate response from the Senior Senator from the state with the most commuter rail passengers would be? Do you think he would propose shoring up weak access points? Or do you think he’d rather go in for the quick score that would bring travel headaches, higher costs and few real safety upgrades to the trains? As you can imagine, Chuck Schumer picked the security theater found in the latter.

In interviews with reporters on Sunday, Schumer called upon Amtrak to implement a “no-ride” list similar to the airlines’ no-fly list. The Department of Homeland Security would share its database with the train operator, and all they would have to do is check the ID of every single person who buys a ticket and boards a train. According to Schumer, this plan would come at “virtually no extra cost” to the government.

“Circumstances demand we make adjustments by increasing funding to enhance rail safety and monitoring on commuter rail transit and screening who gets on Amtrak passenger trains, so that we can provide a greater level of security to the public,” Schumer said.

As Gawker noted, that’s a pretty out-there claim by our Senator. Schumer, wrote Jeff Neumann, “of course failed to explain how that statement is even remotely true. He wants Amtrak employees to cross-reference names from the list with passengers. Amtrak alone last year had 28.7 million passengers. Now, just add all of the commuter rail lines across the country and that’s a whole lot of cross-referencing. Well, thanks for fighting the good fight, Chuck. And good luck with that!”

Schumer’s plan for Amtrak also doesn’t address the system’s real vulnerabilities. Terrorists boarding trains shouldn’t be our primary concern right now. Rather, thousands of miles of exposed tracks and bridges and tunnels that remain easy to access should be the focus of the government’s security efforts and dollars.

While Amtrak promised to “review Schumer’s proposal,” DHS seemed lukewarm. A spokesman told Newsday that the Department has expended over $1.6 billion on security enhancements over the past five years, and they’ve done so in a way that isn’t as confining as airpot security. It is the difference between a plan designed to make us feel safer and one that actually makes us safer.

Despite the uproar today — Schumer’s statements have gotten play from virtually every media outlet across country — his idea isn’t a new one. It was originally put forward by the 9/11 Commission back in 2004, but Amtrak has never acted on the “no-ride” list. It also comes at a time when the federal government cut rail security spending by $50 million.

Meanwhile, what of our commuter rails, equally as vital and equally as vulnerable? Schumer says passengers on carriers such as the LIRR and Metro-North wouldn’t have to show IDs, but he would like to see security expenses increased for commuter railroads across the country. It’s always just a matter of money.

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