Home Subway Security Subway Security: The ‘new normal’ or just theater?

Subway Security: The ‘new normal’ or just theater?

by Benjamin Kabak

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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Peter July 19, 2011 - 7:56 am

“…leading police dogs and carrying radar detectors …”
Huh? Hoping to catch someone speeding? Betcha Im not the only one who isnt sure what this means.

Good luck on the Bar Exam!

Worried July 19, 2011 - 8:35 am

I do not feel safe in the subway, ever. I work in a lab and I can easily carry things in and out via the subway without anyone knowing. If someone wanted to do something malicious no one can stop them.

Perhaps we should learn from the Israelis?

Bolwerk July 19, 2011 - 12:26 pm

There is nothing wrong with some healthy cautiousness, but your concerns are largely misplaced. There have been 0 successful terrorist attacks in New York since 9/11/01. How many automobile accidents have there been?

What we should learn from the Israelis is don’t needlessly humiliate other groups. Once you take away everything people have, they have little left keeping them from taking extreme measures. Even a complete twit like Bush was careful about avoiding that in regards to Muslims/Arabs, at least domestically.

Worried July 19, 2011 - 9:18 pm

I’m not making this political debate here, but it’s just very important for me to tell you and the world that you’re an idiot.

Bolwerk July 20, 2011 - 12:13 am

If you spent less time being Worried perhaps you’d develop a capacity to Reason reason. Israel deals with rocket attacks and bus bombings, two things I’m pretty sure never happened in NYC. Perhaps the Israelis should be learning from us, not the other way around.

Now don’t start thinking traffic is a safe place to play too.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines July 19, 2011 - 8:57 am

[…] So You Saw Something, And Said Something. Then What Happens? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

teacher July 19, 2011 - 10:27 am

On the other hand, I’m a 7th grade teacher, and was upset (though not shocked) to find that whoever was on security detail at Jay St. Metrotech one day had disassembled one of my students projects. Let me be more specific. The child in question was a twelve year old girl in a sparkly salwar kameez and a hijab. She’s at maximum 5′ tall. The project was a diorama of a house, labeled in Spanish, made primarily of popsicle sticks and cardboard and decorated with magazine cutouts.

The fact that they questioned her and searched her school bag and project is bad enough. The fact that they took apart and destroyed to smithereens her house project? Is despicable. It was clearly a school project, not some detailed scheme for anything.

This is what they’re doing instead of responding to rider concerns as mentioned above.

Nathan H. July 19, 2011 - 10:29 am

> “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.”

And that’s a lie. I’ve lived here since March 2001 and I’m permanently “raised up” about the ineffective, expensive, and harmful displays of force that Shanley and his comrades engage in. This is still a democracy and we still have a constitution. It’s up to us to decide if our “normal” is going to be any kind of free society, or more like a certain disgraced and destructive society that developed out of similar public feelings of fear, shame, and resentment about 80 years ago.

Kid Twist July 19, 2011 - 11:12 am

/rolls eyes.

Bolwerk July 19, 2011 - 12:36 pm

I dunno. It’s taken only 30-40 years for so-called conservatives to turn the Constitution into a relative joke simply by interpreting it in wildly bizarre ways. If you take it literally, no government agency would be allowed to search a person on a public thoroughfare, which the subway certainly is. The Supreme Court doesn’t even care. Hell, it’s equally hard to defend breathalyzers, roadblocks, and many other routine cop behaviors except case law says they’re okay.

Police and other agencies have gotten the message that there will be no consequences for authoritarian behavior, and have commenced it with a vengeance. Look no further than the NYPD for that. Unconstitutional behavior can be reported as a statistic for them.

Sasha July 19, 2011 - 10:30 am

Bombay has suffered tremendous terrorist attacks on commuter trains as well – and as recently as last week.

Dave 'Paco' Abraham July 19, 2011 - 11:25 am

Great post Ben, and good questions to dig deeper into. Also, I’m jealous that you did a tour of those stadiums. That kind of a trip is on my wishlist too.

BBnet3000 July 19, 2011 - 11:57 am

Security theater is still a bigger thing in New York than anywhere else.

I went to a Giants game in San Francisco and was amazed that you just get to walk in! (even the bag checks are a shorter and less complicated line than the check everyone gets in New York) After being to plenty of Mets games and a few Yankees games in New York it was just so utterly different than what im used to. Imagine if you went to the airport and there was suddenly no security line.

Kevin July 19, 2011 - 1:04 pm

I remember going to Japan a couple of years ago and being able to just walk into a stadium when a game wasn’t playing. There were no gates, no security, I could’ve walked onto the field if I wanted to (I settled for photos from behind homeplate). The city? Hiroshima.

Nick Carpinelli September 8, 2011 - 10:37 pm

Every backpack, on a pasenger entering a NY Subway car, could possibly contain a bomb. Back packs should NOT be allowed in subway.

B September 8, 2011 - 11:16 pm

Oh those darn office workers, teachers, students (elementary to college), and people traveling to and from JFK and LaGuardia… whatever would they do without their backpacks?

And heck, why stop there? Why not ban backpacks on buses or even cabs?

Todd September 8, 2011 - 11:26 pm

Yeah! We should ban back packs around bridges too!

Also, no cars, trucks, or buses anywhere in the city. And no planes anywhere near NYC. And your mom? Totally banned.


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