Do NYC Subway Searches Really Enhance Safety?

The bombings of London's transit system have revived American concerns about protecting major cities from terror, and has led to the implementation of measures such as bag searches in New York City subways. But to what extent are these new security policies making people safer — or are they just making riders feel safer?

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The IRA may have stopped its terror campaign, but as this month's bombings in London show, radical Islamists have not, and people in this country are reacting. In New York City, police are checking suspicious bags on the subway. Suspicious tourists are being hauled off buses. And citizens' reports of suspicious packages have tripled. But do after-the-fact security measures make people feel safer or do they make people think that not enough was being done before? NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

On the morning of July 7th, hours after the London bombing had occurred, New York Governor George Pataki made these remarks at Grand Central Station.

Governor GEORGE PATAKI (New York): I am extremely confident that the law enforcement officials in this city and in this region, including the New York Police Department, which is the finest police department anywhere in the world, are doing everything they can to make sure that the people who use our mass transit system or just come to visit this great city are as safe as they can possibly be.

PESCA: This reassurance is so de rigueur that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered the precise sentiment about five minutes later.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York City): I know that New Yorkers are concerned that this type of attack could be replicated here in our city. But let me assure you, we are doing everything in our power to prevent that from happening.

PESCA: And yet it wasn't until two weeks later, after a second London attack, that New York instituted bag checks for subway passengers. The officials swore they were doing everything possible, and still, to take but one example, New York had not installed bomb-resistant trash cans or, as Washington, DC, had done, remove trash cans entirely. And then to further shake the faith of New Yorkers, the president of the Transit Workers Union, Roger Toussaint, held a press conference to announce that bus drivers and subway conductors were barely getting any counterterrorism instruction.

Mr. ROGER TOUSSAINT (President, Transit Workers Union): But for luck and professionalism, New York City has not seen disaster and a heavy body count, but incidents are coming, unquestionably.

Ms. KENDRA HILL (Station Agent): I believe the public thinks that we have more training than we have.

PESCA: That was Kendra Hill, a station agent in Harlem. Like all MTA employees, her official training amounted to a two-hour video and a brochure handout. That's sufficient, according to MTA officials, who thought it was just grandstanding when this weekend the union hired a terrorism expert to give them more training. MTA spokesman Tom Kelly.

Mr. TOM KELLY (MTA Spokesperson): Simply put, this is just a shameless exploitation of the recent events in London as part of a bargaining. We are dealing with sophisticated people in New York City who know that we are doing everything humanly possible to insure that--their safety and that of our employees.

PESCA: Not everyone agrees.

Mr. STEPHEN FLYNN (Security Expert): It's simply nonsense that we're doing everything that can be done.

PESCA: Security expert Stephen Flynn says public officials are constantly overassuring.

Mr. FLYNN: The leaders have oversold what they said that they're accomplishing, and that's where I think they need to err much more on the side of candor.

PESCA: Flynn, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "America the Vulnerable," thinks that officials should talk about terrorism like they talk about AIDS, a virus which can be managed but for which there is no cure.

Mr. FLYNN: Everything we know from psychology about fear in terms of maintaining people's rational side is if you give them more detailed information about what threats are and you give them concrete steps that they can take, when--if the threat materializes, they generally take a deep breath and they do the right thing. That kind of skill set we have to develop amongst our population, and it has to override the politician and the law enforcement sort of instinct of being paternalistic in saying, `We'll take care of it. You shop and travel. Give us your resources. We'll mind the shop when it comes to security and you can focus on pursuit of happiness.'

PESCA: Flynn says the public wants to be empowered. He applauds the recent implementation of bag searches on the subways, though he fears it will be abandoned in time or that New Yorkers will grow sick of it. That's easy to imagine if you listen to New Yorkers like George, who was bag-checked on Tuesday.

GEORGE: You know, I'm going to do my part for a little while, but, you know, if I'm late and I'm in a bad mood, I'm going to tell them to (censored) off.

PESCA: David Ropeik, who teaches risk communication at Harvard University, regards the bag checks as a good move, if not for tactical reasons, then for what they communicate.

Mr. DAVID ROPEIK (Harvard University): Understanding and respecting and validating people's emotional responses to risks instead of saying they're being irrational or they're wrong or they're stupid or we'll manipulate them, need to be incorporated at the policy-making level, not just the PR level.

PESCA: As far as the PR itself, `be vigilant and aware of your surroundings' needn't just refer to a wayward package on a bus. It could mean check the statements of the government. Awareness is a good watchword for us and for those making the statements so they know if the public is buying into the program. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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