It was billed as a necessary counterterrorism tactic after the deadly mass transit bombings in London: Anyone entering the city’s sprawling subway system could be subjected to a random search of backpacks, briefcases and shopping bags.
One year and countless searches later, the practice once thought of as a temporary imposition, with the potential to trample civil rights, remains in effect and is barely causing a stir.
“We consider it a valuable tactic to use,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a recent interview. “It’s not a panacea, it’s not a cure-all, but it’s another tool in our toolbox.”
Officials won’t say how many bags police have searched in the past year, or specify where and when they do it. Unpredictable deployment keeps would-be bombers off balance, they say.
The program has resulted in five arrests — not for terrorism, but for drug possession, disorderly conduct and other minor charges.
Tunnels teeming with soft targets
Still, the nation’s largest police department considers the city’s 468 subway stations and the average 4.5 million riders who use them daily on average to be ripe targets for terrorism. The subway inspections are just one element of a counterterrorism program that costs the NYPD roughly $200 million a year.
Each day, police set up checkpoints in a handful of stations across the city, often during the afternoon rush. A typical checkpoint has three uniformed officers equipped with a folding table and flashlights used to peer into bags, a far cry from the elaborate screening stations in airports.
At a checkpoint at the Wall Street subway stop last week, about every 10th person was stopped for a search that lasted perhaps 10 seconds. The officers shooed away some commuters who tried to voluntarily open their bags for inspection.
If the chosen were bothered, it didn’t show.
“I’m trying to make a train, but it’s OK,” said Eric Mergenthaler, a 38-year-old stock trader. “I understand why they’re doing it.”
Legal challenges continue
The New York Civil Liberties Union believed the searches were such violations of privacy that it went to court last year to stop them. A federal judge disagreed, saying that following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks the need for such measures was “indisputable, pressing, ongoing and evolving.”
The NYCLU has appealed. Its lawyers argue the searches are too infrequent to be a real deterrent, yet frequent enough to violate constitutional rights.
“We’re in favor of making people feel comfortable, but not at the expense of the Constitution,” said NYCLU Legal Director Christopher Dunn.
Kelly cited a poll of registered voters last year that found 72 percent favored the program.
“The public seems to be happy with it, and the cops are positive about it,” he said of the search program. “I think so far it’s worked very, very well.”