New York Subway Searches Prompt Growing Opposition

In the wake of the London bombings, New York City officials have begun random searches of subway passengers. Some New Yorkers are taking it in stride, but a civil liberties group is raising legal questions saying that the search policy gives a false sense of security.

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And ever since the London bombings, New York City has been on edge. Reports to police of suspicious packages have doubled. Random searches in city subway stations started last Friday, and on Monday they were broadened to include New Jersey buses and trains. Over the weekend, reports of suspicious activity prompted evacuations in Penn Station and in Times Square. And this week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was forced to apologize for detaining five British tourists. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

The pictures in the tabloids left no doubt: five tourists, who appeared to be South Asian, handcuffed and kneeling after they were taken off a Gray Line tour bus. Mayor Michael Bloomberg forced to apologize and to admonish people. Yes, report anything suspicious, but do it accurately.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): Don't embellish what the facts are.

ADLER: Referring to the bus company worker who called the police, Bloomberg observed, if you call the police with a report that is serious and time-critical, they are going to respond in force.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: And I think in this case, clearly, it was not warranted. There were reports that these gentlemen had knapsacks and there was a question as to what was in them. They didn't even have any knapsacks.

ADLER: It's almost been a week since the subway searches began. Police have 468 subway stations to choose from, so most city dwellers have yet to see a search take place. Those who refuse to be searched will be led out of the station, a cynical New Yorker might observe, perhaps to enter somewhere else. But Deputy New York City Police Commissioner Paul Brown says the public has been overwhelmingly supportive.

Mr. PAUL BROWN (Deputy Police Commissioner, New York City): To the extent where we have people that we have not asked volunteering to come forward and open a purse or open a backpack.

ADLER: And that was certainly true during rush hour as people hurried through the subway station at 14th and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Four police officers stood in the sweltering heat behind a table and occasionally asked someone to open a package or backpack, but many people passing by opened their bags unasked. And those who were searched, like Ryan Ramkilowen(ph), took it in stride.

Mr. RYAN RAMKILOWEN (Commuter): There's no hard feelings. I know the officers are just doing their job. So you got to kind of cope with the changes that's going on.

ADLER: The support for these searches poses a problem for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is considering a lawsuit. Executive Director Donna Lieberman.

Ms. DONNA LIEBERMAN (Executive Director, New York Civil Liberties Union): We recognize that many New Yorkers support this policy, but we can't decide whether or not to challenge it based on whether our position is popular.

ADLER: Lieberman says the organization must make its decision based on what is right for people's rights, as well as their safety and security. She argues that there has to be hard evidence to justify any limitation of basic constitutional rights. So the NYCLU is trying to gather the facts about the search policy, both in theory and practice. She doesn't like the policy and says that it gives a false sense of security.

Ms. LIEBERMAN: I don't really approve of privacy invasions to make us feel secure without the reality of additional security.

ADLER: But her real concern is racial and ethnic profiling. She doesn't say it's happening; she's watching for it. She says that immigrant communities, particularly those from South Asia and the Middle East, are legitimately afraid and concerned.

Ms. LIEBERMAN: Stories abound of people who have avoided going out in public or doing certain kinds of activities. People who come from India or Pakistan or the Middle East shouldn't have to be afraid to go on the subway.

ADLER: Most editorials, letters to the editor and polls have shown wide support for these random searches, although opponents have started a Web site, NoSubwaySearches.org. But Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Brown says that searches are fair because they are random and at a set frequency. Depending on the flow, they might spot check one in five or one in 10 backpacks.

Mr. BROWN: This has been reviewed by our legal staff and we're confident that it would pass any constitutional muster, certainly, regarding search.

ADLER: Although the New York Civil Liberties Union is preparing for possible litigation, it is also continuing to talk with the police about the search policy. Deputy Commissioner Brown said yesterday that random searches will continue indefinitely. And the New York City Transit Authority just announced that seats on some of New York's older subway cars will now be locked to prevent objects from being placed underneath.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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