APTA | Passenger Transport
January 17, 2011

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Random Bag Searches: Security Tool, Psychological Deterrent
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

Security changes anywhere do not come easily. When Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) wanted to search bags during the 2004 presidential conventions, it took two separate court rulings to make this happen. Both agencies have since institutionalized this practice, searching bags on a random basis since 2005 (New York) and 2006 (Boston).

“We believe it’s not intrusive at all,” said MBTA Transit Chief Paul MacMillan. “It’s basically well received.”

The process is simple. MBTA personnel swab the outside of a carry-on with a gauze pad and send it through a trace detection machine, which is read within 10-20 seconds. If there’s no indication of explosive, that person is free to go. If there is an indication that further investigation is needed, the officer may ask the person to open the bag. Some officers have dogs that are trained to detect explosives.

From time to time there are positive indications on the machine, but those could be the result of people using such common products as fertilizer. “So through a series of investigation questions, we can rule something out. They are explained away by the passengers based on our questioning of them,” MacMillan noted.

Some people, MacMillan acknowledged, do take exception to this practice—and they write to complain. Those e-mails, he noted, are always answered.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) handles bag searching for the New York MTA. The genesis for this program was shortly after the July 2005 bombings in London’s subways; its legality is founded in making station selection random, but permitting bag inspection at non-arbitrary frequencies, decided by the sergeant on duty.

Simply put, the sergeant running the operation on a given day may select the 25th or the 50th person in a line, depending on the volume of traffic at the station. That person would be called over to a table and a NYPD officer would conduct a minimally invasive visual inspection of a bag’s contents.

These days, uniformed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inspectors work side by side with uniformed NYPD officers. The former use the latest technology in portable explosive trace detection, while the latter speak with the people, make the selections, and solve or mitigate any issues that arise.

“It’s certainly a highly visual and effective way of adding to the layer of security,” said NYPD Assistant Chief Owen Monaghan, who is also executive officer of the NYPD Transit Bureau. “It throws in an element of uncertainty and unpredictability in the minds of a potential terrorist. We adhere to no certain schedule—every one of our 468 [subway] stations has been subject to these inspections.”

But swabbing bags isn’t the only action transit systems take; it’s just one part of a layered approach to an agency’s security initiative. As MacMillan pointed out, in addition: “We have CCTV [closed-circuit television], plainclothes officers, and high visibility patrols.” Said Monaghan: “We have all proactive enforcement operations because one component won’t be satisfactory. Here in New York, we really adhere to that layered approach concept.”

Creating Randomness
How do the officers make the random selections? MBTA takes randomness very seriously: it uses a computer system to generate random numbers. So one day, for example, it could be riders number 4, 5, 6, and then 20.

This practice has an underpinning in security theory. “We do this with the understanding that our systems are open,” said New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit) Police Chief Christopher Trucillo, “but we don’t do it in a set way at a set location at a set time. We do it in a random pattern, so if someone is surveilling us, they don’t know where it’s going to be.”

Objections Raised
Whether in Boston or New York or Washington, DC (where the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority just instituted this practice), those who object generally fall into two categories: they either call it illegal or they term it “security theater,” meaning it’s just for show and doesn’t really accomplish anything.

At a recent community meeting in the Washington area, for instance, WMATA Deputy Police Chief Ron Pavlik observed that people came with preconceived ideas about these checks, and these assumptions drive the tone of their whole conversation. “We weren’t going to change the minds of the majority of the people there. But a lot of them quieted down once they learned we weren’t physically going into their bags,” he said.

“Initially there was some uncertainty amongst the public,” said Monaghan, “but the inspection itself is so minimally intrusive and so quickly done that most people just shrug their shoulders—and many are happy to have some type of proactive involvement.”

The Deterrent Element
“We want to do everything in our power to ensure that riders have security,” said WMATA Police Chief Michael A. Taborn. “Every security initiative we deploy is with that in mind—that we’ll deter some criminal activity. It’s based upon the probability that—if there’s any possibility of criminal activity being planned—with these inspections, they won’t know where we’ll show up—and they may be seen.” At the same time, Taborn stressed: “We do not want to limit the freedom and access of people moving throughout the system.”

Taborn added the officers count bags, not people, using their random numbering system, so “If you’re walking and you don’t have any carry-on items, you’re not counted.” Thus far, he reports, not only have no riders refused to have their bags swabbed, many were also offering their bags to be inspected!

NYPD’s Monaghan commented that the bag inspection program is “a lot of work, but it creates a visual deterrent and a proactive stance at a very open and porous system. We can’t throw up a moat and have the access control like at the airports.”

WMATA spokesperson Cathy Asato echoed Monaghan: “We see this as another deterrent to somebody who might try to cause harm. Riders come up to the officer saying ‘I wish you’d implemented this sooner, keep up the good work.’”

NJ Transit has also been swabbing bags since the London bombings. This practice, said Director of Media Relations Dan Stessel, has been very well received by its customers.

“I remember the first several weeks when we started the program, we actually had people coming up to us and offering to open their bags for inspections. People really warmly welcomed it in the New York area—it’s another tool in our toolbox to add layers of security to an otherwise open transit system,” he said.

Stessel called the process “seamless” and noted that the NJ Transit police have mastered the art of adding security without interrupting transit operations. “And so the inspections themselves are done very quickly; there are very few reports of passengers missing trains as a result of having to go through the inspection,” he said.

“There is no tolerance for profiling,” he added. “We adhere to the guidelines to ensure that it’s truly random. It’s a tactic employed throughout the year, regardless of security threat levels—but it’s something we do step up whenever there’s an elevated level related to world events.”

“Post 9/11,” said NJ Transit’s Trucillo, “we’re concerned with the introduction of improvised explosive devices on our transportation systems—be it bus or rail. And one of the things we utilize amongst the many different things . . . are visible deterrents to those looking to do us harm—to disrupt that pre-operational or operational activity.”

NJ Transit does not target individuals; it picks a number—e.g., every seventh person with a bag. “We have found very little resistance,” said Trucillo. “In fact, it’s been my experience where I’ve observed baggage inspections—we have to tell people: ‘No, we don’t have to see your bag.’ They are happy to see us and they thank us for being there, because they understand the vulnerability in the situation—and the job that law enforcement has in keeping them safe.”  “While there is no specific threat to mass transit in the United States, TSA and local law enforcement continuously work together to strengthen our overall security efforts and keep the American people safe,” said TSA spokesperson J. Kawika Riley. “TSA partners with local authorities to support mass transit security through transit security grants; comprehensive security inspections; deployment of explosives detection canine teams; and unpredictable deployment of Visible Intermodal Prevention & Response teams to mitigate evolving threats.”

“This process is designed to prevent and to deter. So to that extent, we feel it’s a valuable initiative to have,” said MBTA’s MacMillan.


WMATA transit police randomly examine bags at the College Park Metrorail Station in Maryland.



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