Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Jul 21, 2005

In New Security Move, New York Police to Search Commuters' Bags


Published: July 21, 2005 at

New York City will begin tomorrow morning randomly checking bags at subway stations, commuter railways and on buses, officials announced today in the wake of a second wave of bombings on the London transit system.

The announcement by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly represents a significant ratcheting up of antiterrorism security in the city. Previous efforts have been limited in order to avoid causing delays in a city known for its hustle and the impatience of its denizens.

Officials said the city has never before attempted to regulate the possessions of passengers in its mammoth and complicated transit system. The city's subway system alone has 468 stations and carries some 4.5 million passengers on an average weekday. Some of the larger stations have at least half a dozen entrances and exits. In New York City, relatively few people own cars, and almost everyone who commutes via subway carries a bag of some sort filled with items needed for the entire day, including computers, business documents, gym clothes and makeup. Many people carry two bags.

"We live in a world where sadly these types of security measures are necessary," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Are they intrusive, yes, a little bit. But we're trying to find the right balance."

Mr. Kelly said most searches will occur in subway stations, but that the Police Department "will reserve the right" to check the bags of passengers on buses and ferries as well. While the policy is still being worked out, officials said passengers will be checked before they enter a station's turnstiles, though some people inside stations may also be searched.

People who do not submit to a search will be allowed to leave, but will not be permitted into the subway station. The police commissioner said officers would take pains to avoid singling people out for searches based on race or ethnicity.

"No racial profiling will be allowed," Mr. Kelly said. "It's against our policies. But it will be a systematized approach."

He added, "We'll give some very specific and detailed instructions to our officers on how to do it in accordance with our laws and the Constitution."

Despite the police commissioner's assurances, the new policy raised concerns about protecting New Yorkers' constitutional right to privacy.

"The police can and should be aggressively investigating anyone they suspect is trying to bring explosives into the subway," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. "However, random police searches of people without any suspicion of wrongdoing are contrary to our most basic constitutional values. This is a very troubling announcement."

Boston transit authorities conducted random baggage checks at major rail stations during the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, following the terrorist bombings of 10 commuter trains in Madrid in March. The city, which has about one million daily subway riders, was the first in the nation to enact such a policy.

Civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee challenged the policy in court, asking for a restraining order, but eventually withdrew their case, said John Martino, deputy transit police chief of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Mr. Martino said that subway stations had been selected at random and riders' baggage was checked before they entered trains. Riders, he said, were selected "based solely on random numbers that were assigned," which was part of a range determined by clicker-count of passengers.

"It worked out excellently," Mr. Martino said. "When we did it, we actually had people asking to be screened. It makes them more comfortable knowing that it was being done. It only takes 10 seconds per person, it's totally unobtrusive."

Boston's policy is permanent, but the practice was stopped after the convention because there was no longer a need for it, said Mr. Martino, although the city is "contemplating doing it right now," because of the London bombings.

In New York City, the terrorist threat level has been orange, the second highest., since the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but police officers have not previously searched the bags of mass transit passengers - even after a firebombing on a subway station in Lower Manhattan in 1994, a deadly sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 and a foiled plot to bomb the subway in Brooklyn in 1997.

Bags are occasionally checked during large events, like the annual New Year's Eve celebration at Times Square. Bags have also been regularly checked since the World Trade Center attacks at museums and professional sports events.

Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said today that internal discussions about random checks had been going on for several weeks - before the bombings of subway trains and buses in London on July 7 and again today. No one is believed to have been killed in today's attacks in London, but the first series of bombings in that city killed 56 people and wounded 700 others.

"It was something that had been discussed for several weeks," an M.T.A. spokesman, Tom Kelly, said in a telephone interview.

Police spokesman Paul Browne said that during a meeting at Police Headquarters this morning, police officials decided to start the random checks, which police officials have discussed periodically for the past three years.

"In light of what appeared to be the continuing nature of the attacks in London, the decision was made to move to this next step," Mr. Browne said.

M.T.A. officers will also carry out checks on the Long Island Railway and Metro North commuter rail lines.

A spokesman for New Jersey Transit, Dan Stessel, said in an e-mail message: "We have no plans for random checks. However, N.J. Transit Police continue to operate on high alert, with double the number of officers on patrol and triple the number of K9 units deployed on the system."

Since Sept. 11, police have intermittently stopped trucks and vans as vehicles enter the city's bridges and tunnels. Security has also been heightened around power plants and other potential terrorist targets, and National Guard soldiers have been patrolling Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal, which are the city's largest transit hubs.

Mr. Kelly, the transit spokesman, acknowledged that the random searches were without precedent, but added that he hoped riders would not consider the actions an inconvenience.

"We're going to alert our passengers on the subways as well as the commuter rail lines that their packages are subject to inspection," he said. "It's a safety issue. People don't consider any measures that you take for safety to be an inconvenience. This is New York City."