Home Subway Security Ten years later, better security or just theater?

Ten years later, better security or just theater?

by Benjamin Kabak

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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Bolwerk September 7, 2011 - 2:26 am

I’m pretty ambivalent about security. Obviously there will be some, but I don’t think we are gaining much additional safety for the effort put forward. To some extent, we all have to face the uncertainty that, no matter how improbable, we could be blown up if we happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong moment in time. That would probably be true if there was no security, or if there was optimal security – and I doubt either is realistic. Given the resources the NYPD spends on illegal/ineffective frisks, even they and the politicians who pull their strings seem to realize there isn’t much point.

In the mean time, concerning see something/say something and other programs like it: where are the confiscated bombs and prevented attacks showing the policies are worth their cost? Anything?

On the bright side, the Madrid MO has never really been seen inside the U.S. has far as I know.

Kid Twist September 7, 2011 - 9:23 am

OK, how much does the NYPD spend on “illegal/ineffective frisks?”

Bolwerk September 7, 2011 - 2:10 pm

I dunno, who cares? That they do it at all, and then tally up millions$ in lawsuit costs, is a waste of supposedly precious resources regardless of what the “Piss on the constitution” line item is.

Anyway, screw dollars. Let’s talk about time. Going by NYCLU

The NYPD recorded a total of 601,055 stop-and-frisk encounters in 2010 – an all-time high.

If a stop averages 15 minutes, that would be 9015825 minutes or 150263.75 hours of mostly wasted police time. 6261 days or ~18783 eight-hour shifts of police time spent on a policy that by the NYPD’s own admission is about 90% unsuccessful.

I don’t think it takes much imagination to see where such effort could be put to better use.

Nathan H. September 7, 2011 - 10:42 am

You know where else the Madrid MO has not been seen since it happened? Madrid.

That city has moved on. Likewise Moscow, London and Tokyo have somehow survived their subways being attacked. We have to stop living in fear of the idea of just being attacked, and look at the actual consequences of terrorism compared to everything else. And why aren’t attacks we think of as successful and terrifying being repeated all the time?

Ray Kelly sounds positively crestfallen that a lack of “recent events, terrorist events” leads to less fear and suspicion among New Yorkers, ultimately reflected by fewer false leads to their famous tiplines. How is it bad if a special system for reporting your terrorism fears to the government, which has zero actual success to date, is being used less?

If you look at the past ten years, terrorism fears have enriched and empowered a lot of people. Those are the people I’m afraid of.

SEAN September 7, 2011 - 11:25 am

Exactly. It’s all theatre just like the war on ilegal drugs. It looks & sounds good, but in the end it’s all theatre. Also if you can induce enough fear & suspission, you could create a security state where you won’t be able to move without someone else knowing about it. Is that this country becomeing a giant security state with massive numbers of citizens unemployed & who might out of the workforce perminently?

Scarry propossion.

Bolwerk September 7, 2011 - 2:16 pm

Agreed, but I should point out that the approximate MO has been seen around Europe in the past decade – just not the United States. Europe does have comparable geographic breadth to the U.S., and nowadays has comparable border policies to states in the United States.

Of course, our relative calm could well change as people like the Tea Partiers seem pretty determined to adopt the French policy of discouraging Muslim immigrants to integrate into their new societies. At least anecdotally, it explains things like the Times Square car bomber, who luckily was a moron. IIRC, ironically, before 9/11, most U.S. Muslims were what could, for lack of a better term, be described as “moderate Republicans.”

SEAN September 7, 2011 - 4:26 pm

They aren’t republican enough.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines September 7, 2011 - 9:18 am

[…] Kabak: Are Subways Safer Now Than Ten Years Ago? […]

chemster September 7, 2011 - 10:29 am

Just theater, IMHO. I think it’s a waste of money to pay 2 (or 3?) policemen to man those tables and essentially provide warm fuzzies to politicians (and a bit of CYA if anything goes wrong, G-d forbid).

Here’s my modest proposal. Ya want security theater? Make it *real* theater. Hire actors! If there are N teams currently “working” the subways, replace 25% of the teams with groups of 1 NYPD, the rest actors. There are always plenty of unemployed actors around town, and I’m sure they’d love to get a paid, challenging, job. They’d only be needed part-time, and they’d be much cheaper than actual NYPD. (There would be one officer on each team, just in case an actual incident were to occur). It would be just as effective as the current setup, and less expensive, too! Everyone wins!

wwwhitney September 7, 2011 - 10:59 am

One correction, there has not been a terrorist bombing in Tokyo since 9/11. I think you are probably referring to the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo which happened in 1995.

To me, subway terrorism security seems like a lost cause. Even on days when the MTA and NYPD are on high alert and there are dogs and police staked out at turnstiles in major stations, plenty of turnstiles are still unattended and it would be easy to slip into even the most “secure” station. Not to mention that there are tons of stations throughout the system with no security at all even on high alert days. While it probably wouldn’t be as symbolically spectacular, there’s practically nothing stopping someone from blowing up a crowded Manhattan bound L train before it reaches Union Square or a rush hour Manhattan bound 7 train before it reaches Grand Central.

I agree that theater must be employed by the MTA and NYPD to project some semblance of control, but it is almost purely theater. If the government hasn’t detected a bombing plot before it is already set into motion, there’s practically nothing that can be done to stop it.

Despite all of the doom and gloom, I don’t see any point in dwelling on it as a straphanger. Your chances of dying in a subway terrorist attack are so low that’s it’s just not worth worrying about.

BrooklynBus September 7, 2011 - 11:06 am

What happens if you see something and say something? Is anything even done every time? A few months after 9/11 I saw an abandoned attaché case left in a deserted mezzanine of a subway station. I waited several minutes for someone to come back and claim it. When no one did, I walked back downstairs and notified the station agent in the booth. He told me he couldn’t leave the booth for four more hours to check it out. No radio or phone?

About two years ago, someone abandoned a large suitcase in front of a park near my house. I called the local precinct to report it. It remained in the same place for about 24 hours. I called again and finally a police car came and an officer took it and placed it in the litter basket at the corner without even opening it up. If it were left in Midtown, the response would have been very different.

SEAN September 7, 2011 - 11:35 am

One of the TV stations did an expose on this very question a few years ago, cant remember if it was 2, 4 or 7, but the results were exactly what you described.

So the question remains just because you say something does it mean the NYPD or other agency will do something?

Sorry about my last post I couldn’t correct it.

Larry Littlefield September 7, 2011 - 1:59 pm

There is no way to stop someone from setting off a small bomb on a subway car, or in the crowded portion of a suburban shopping mall.

No consolation to those killed or their families, but the number of people harmed by such attacks is small, because the power of explosives that could be carried is limited. A subway bomber would be hard pressed to kill more people than are killed in traffic in NYC in a year.

The first WTC bombing was more destructive, because it was a van full of explosives. The Oklahoma City bombing was far, far more destructive, because it was a truck full of explosives. And 9/11 attacks featured plans full of jet fuel. Not backpacks or briefcases.


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