NYPD Conducting Subway Searches in Wake of 9/11 Anniversary

If using New York City’s subway system wasn’t already enough of a hassle for commuters, they can expect to be even more delayed from increased security measures.

With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaching, fear of terrorism is at large. It’s manifesting on a large scale with more rigid airport security worldwide. But in New York City, it has taken the form of the police department conducting random searches of subway passengers.

This, however, is not a new police initiative. They’ve been performing these searches for over five years. Police began the practice in 2005 after bombing attempts and bombings in London’s transit system.

The New York Police Department refuses to divulge specific details about where searches are taking place, or how many officers are participating in them. They fear doing so would compromise the purpose of the searches, which is to deter enemies.

Experts in terrorism agree the searches are effective, not because they keep terrorists off trains, but because searches are unpredictable and keep attack planners off balance.

While the police department won’t officially reveal what it has found in the bags of New Yorkers, Detective Brian Sessi of Brooklyn’s 83rd precinct disclosed that commuters have been arrested for possessing firearms and drugs, even though searches were initiated to find explosives.

“They’re using the terrorism law to invade people’s privacy,” said Miguel Ortiz, a current Queens resident, who has worked as a security guard in Bushwick, Brooklyn for 11 years. “It’s like entrapment.”

Ortiz has never been searched, but he still feels the practice is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, he agreed in its potential to deter crime.

Two police officers were conducting random searches at the Bushwick Avenue-Aberdeen Street subway station off the L line in Brooklyn from approximately 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Deputy Inspector James Rooney confirmed the primary motivation behind them was to prevent terrorism. However, he added searches could also deter non-terrorist criminals, such as ones illegally possessing guns, from using the subway.

NYPD searching passenger bag at subway entrance/dnainfo.com

“I feel good because I can travel safe to the place I want to go,” said Jonathan Mejia, a Bushwick teen. He said sacrificing his right to privacy was worth feeling secure riding the train.

Many people like Mejia, who favor random searches, argue that increased subway security is no different from the safety measures used by the Transportation Security Administration at airports since 9/11. But opponents say airport screenings apply to every one, while subway searches are conducted under the discretion of the police officers in charge. This leaves profiling as a concern.

Detective Sessi assured searches are performed on a completely random yet systematic basis. For example, he said, officers could choose to screen every fourth person entering the subway or every person with a blue bag. According to him, police only set up checkpoints at a few designated stations. But he wouldn’t disclose how they’re chosen.

Passengers are searched outside the turnstiles, before entering the subway system. If they don’t want to be searched, they have the option to leave.

The New York Civil Liberties Union carried out a spot survey of subway stations in 2005, and found about 6 checkpoints per 1,000 entrances – a low degree of coverage. As a result, the organization proceeded to challenge the NYPD screenings in federal court, claiming they were too rare and indiscriminate to be efficient. But the searches were upheld.

“I think it works as a double purpose, so that they’re working against terrorism while also trying to fulfill their quota for drug abuse and gun possession,” said Nicolette Natrin, a 20-year-old student living in Bushwick, who uses the subway daily to get to Hunter College and her job at Bank of America. “I’m questioning their motivations in areas like Bushwick with primarily black and Latino residents.”

Increased subway security has been the city’s response to other instances of terrorism in transit systems, such as the subway bombings in Madrid in 2004 and the train bombings in Mumbai in 2006. But many Americans feel the searches violate their basic constitutional rights, which they feel is a threat as serious as terrorism.

(Written Sept. 7, 2011 for Reporting and Writing class)

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