NYC Transit Cops Search Subway Backpackers

Police officer Russell King inspects bags at the 42nd Street Port Authority subway station.

Police officer Russell King inspects bags at the 42nd Street Port Authority subway station in New York, July 22, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

After the latest London bombings, New York City police began random searches of packages and backpacks brought onto the subway. Police promised "a systematized approach" that would avoid racial profiling. No one could recall a precedent for such broad searches, however, and civil libertarians questioned their legality. Richard Hake of NPR station WNYC reports.

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The bombings in London have prompted New York City police to begin random searches of backpacks and packages on the subway. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the city's security tactics need to be constantly changing and unpredictable. From member station WNYC, Richard Hake reports.

RICHARD HAKE reporting:

Many New York City subway riders expected bag inspections to be a huge inconvenience. But at the Lafayette Avenue station in Brooklyn, they were organized.

Unidentified Police Officer #1: How you doing, ma'am? This will only take a second, OK? Will you pour out some of the contents, please? I don't want to stick my hand in your bag.

HAKE: Three police officers selected passengers at random just outside the turnstiles while another two opened bags on a small folding table.

Unidentified Police Officer #2: Can you move...

Unidentified Man #1: Sorry, I thought you wanted me to move out of the way.

Unidentified Police Officer #2: Can you move some of the contents in the bag?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. That's fine.

Unidentified Police Officer: You don't have to take everything out, just move it around.

HAKE: Police set up the checkpoints at only a few of the 468 stations. At the busy Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, a wall of 10 officers greeted passengers at the bottom of an escalator with a cordial, `Good morning.' Brooklyn resident Giddy Munez(ph) is from Lithuania and said he didn't mind the search.

Mr. GIDDY MUNEZ (Subway Passenger): Yeah, they was nice. And it's OK. I don't worry about that. It's like when you are going somewhere to a flight, you know, somewhere--to other country, you need to check your bag, too. So for me, it's like--it's OK.

HAKE: Mayor Bloomberg said the searches are designed to make people feel comfortable about riding the trains. Bob Esh(ph) was traveling to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the F train.

Mr. BOB ESH (Subway Passenger): No, I'm not worried. I'm open to it. Like, it's a security thing, so I guess they got to do what they got to do. I absolutely have no problems.

(Soundbite of subway station noise)

HAKE: Police officials have declined to say where or how often the searches will take place. One thing police Commissioner Raymond Kelly did assure New Yorkers was that the selection process would be random and up to the officer's discretion.

Commissioner RAYMOND KELLY (New York Police Department): It won't be done on a--certainly no racial profiling will be allowed. It's against our policies. But it will be a systematized the approach to checking bags.

HAKE: Police regularly search bags at large events like parades and demonstrations but never before inside the subway system. The New York Civil Liberties Union says it's a violation of basic rights and hasn't ruled out a lawsuit. Jim Roth is the former chief counsel for the FBI's New York office. He says it's problematic unless you search everyone like at the airports.

Mr. JIM ROTH (Former Counsel, FBI): Everybody gets through the magnetometer, everybody's bags get X-rayed. You know, that's just they way it is. There is then no discretion for the officer. But if you can't do everyone, then the question is what's the criteria?

HAKE: On his weekly radio address on WABC New York, Mayor Bloomberg defended the searches by saying the burden lies with the police officer's judgment.

Unidentified Man #2: In this day and age, profiling by saying, `Well, a terrorist looks like something or other,'--I think if we've learned anything, it is you can't predict what a terrorist looks like.

HAKE: Transit passengers can refuse the search, but then they are not permitted to enter the subway system. Random bag inspections are also being done by state police on the commuter lines leading into New York City. Other municipalities across the country are considering similar measures. For NPR News, I'm Richard Hake in New York.

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