New York's Subway Riders Face Bag Checks With Somber Tolerance

Police officer Jose Morales, center, is among the officers inspecting bags as people enter Grand Central Terminal. In New York City, subway riders are now subject to random searches of bags and backpacks after the attack on the London transit system this week.
Police officer Jose Morales, center, is among the officers inspecting bags as people enter Grand Central Terminal. In New York City, subway riders are now subject to random searches of bags and backpacks after the attack on the London transit system this week. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)
By Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 23, 2005

NEW YORK, July 22 -- Police began the arduous process of randomly searching a few of the thousands of bags that passengers carry onto the subways Friday, after New York became the first U.S. city to require such searches in the aftermath of new terrorist explosions in London.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the baggage searches -- which will be extended to buses and suburban trains -- could continue for weeks, if not months. Seven million people ride the city's buses and subways each day, more than half the nation's daily mass transit riders.

"Clearly, we'll do it for a little while. It's partially designed to make people feel comfortable . . . and keep the potential threat away," Bloomberg (R) said in his weekly radio show, as reported by the Associated Press.

Washington Metro transit officials said they are keeping a close eye on the New York City experience and have not ruled out conducting such searches on the Metro in the future.

But the magnitude of New York's task, the attempt to search even a relative handful of the tens of thousands of bags, backpacks, suitcases and even steamer trunks that New Yorkers carry into 468 subway stations, quickly became apparent. At Times Square and at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn (where Long Island commuters pour into the subways), vast rivers of commuters moved through turnstiles manned by a handful of uniformed police officers.

Few of the subway passengers objected to the idea that an officer might buttonhole them and ask to peer into their bags. The congenitally contentious New Yorker of legend was a muted presence. Police said few riders refused the searches, and some even voluntarily gave their bags over for scrutiny.

"I'd rather be watched and alive than dead with my privacy intact," Frank Majowicz, a businessman from Toms River, N.J., said as he hauled a shoulder bag off the Times Square shuttle.

At the multiple-tiered Atlantic Avenue station in Brooklyn, Xavier Rodney toted a small black backpack past four National Guardsmen holding M-16 rifles. He wore an oversize Los Angeles Lakers jersey and long shorts, and he spoke of supporting the searches, in part because as a black man, he does not think he fits the profile of a terrorist.

"I don't have anything to hide . . . I guess they stopped looking for gangbangers," he said. "If I was in the position of the people they are profiling, I'd feel differently."

Police officials took pains Friday to describe the searches as entirely random, hoping to allay fears of racial profiling. "We are looking at backpack size or containers large enough to house explosives that we know have been used in these mass transit attacks," said Paul J. Browne, chief spokesman for the city police. "The protocol would be to pick the fifth backpack in each group of 10. If a Middle Eastern man is number four, he would not get checked."

That failed to convince civil libertarians, who say the searches will be ineffective and play on the fears of New Yorkers who ride along 722 miles of track. The New York Civil Liberties Union has set up a complaint form on its Web site, and its attorneys said they are considering a lawsuit. Last year, the group successfully sued to prevent the police from searching the bags of people on their way to political demonstrations.

"Our position is that the police should aggressively investigate anyone whom they suspect of bringing explosives into the system," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director for the organization. "But police searches of subway riders without any suspicions are presumptively unconstitutional."

At a mid-morning news conference, workers with the 38,000-strong Transport Workers Union attacked the system's security readiness, saying they had little training on handling the chaos that would come with a terrorist attack in the subway tunnels. They noted that city firefighters and police officers practice drills in the tunnels, but that motormen, conductors and track workers are not included.

"As far as the training we got from the MTA, it's more human instinct," said subway operator Jermaine Johnson, who was stuck inside a tunnel when the East Coast experienced a blackout two years ago. "I had never evacuated. I just knew I wanted to get out of there."

Current Metropolitan Transportation Authority policy dictates that transit workers call for help and wait at their posts.

MTA officials responded that the union complaints were an attempt to build public support for future contract negotiations. They said in a written statement that all MTA employees are "trained in emergency aspects of their jobs"

But many people entered the city's underground tunnels with a sense of unease on Friday. Kawar Mansy, 20, walked with her friend through the Atlantic Avenue station, both women wearing Muslim hijabs . They support the new security measures -- even as they worried about the inquiring eyes from commuters.

"When I walk around, I don't feel safe," Mansy said. "You don't know what's going to happen."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company