Police to Check Bags on NYC Subways

In a marked overreaction to the second series of terrorist bombings of the London subways, New York City has announced it will begin checking passenger bags on its massive subway system.

Police to Check Bags on NYC Subways (AP)

Police will begin conducting random searches of packages and backpacks carried by people entering city subways, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Thursday after a new series of bomb attacks in London. Authorities said the system is still being developed, but the plan is for passengers carrying bags to be selected at random before they have passed through turnstiles. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly promised that officers would not engage in racial profiling, and that passengers will be free to “turn around and leave” rather than consent to a search.

Officials would not immediately say how frequently the checks would occur. The checks are scheduled to begin at some stations by Thursday evening and will be occurring throughout the system by rush hour on Friday. “We just live in a world where, sadly, these kinds of security measures are necessary,” Bloomberg said. “Are they intrusive? Yes, a little bit. But we are trying to find that right balance.”

Searching the bags of more than a token number of straphangers may be impossible. New York’s subways carry about 4.5 million passengers on the average weekday, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. There are 468 subway stations in the system, most of which have multiple entrances, and during rush hours, the flood of commuters hurrying in and out of key stations can be overwhelming. Asked whether the searches might create bottlenecks at subway entrances, Kelly suggested the searches would be of a small enough sampling of passengers that only individuals, rather than whole crowds, would be delayed. “We are going to do it in a reasonable commonsense way,” he said.

I understand the pressure the mayor and other public officials are under in this climate. Still, this policy is absurd.

For one thing, it makes zero sense to allow people subjected to random searches to leave. That has no deterrent value whatsoever. A terrorist group can plot an attack and figure they have an excellent chance of making it through without a check. On the off chance they are selected, they decline and leave to come back in an hour or the next day. What a joke.

Further, as the article makes clear, the logistics of meaningfully searching 4.5 million passengers crunched for time and spread over 468 stations are markedly harder to pull off than the relatively undertravelled airport system.

Update: Maybe DC’s Metro, too.

Cities look for ways to secure rails – D.C. considers random searches (USA TODAY, p. 3)

Subway riders may face random police checks of their bags under a security measure being considered in the nation’s capital, the latest city to look for ways to deter terrorism on rail systems. No decision has been made on the idea for the city’s 106-mile Metrorail system, and the logistics would be difficult. But “it would be another tool in our security toolbox,†says Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

The possibility is one of many ideas being floated here and elsewhere while the terrorist threat level for transit systems remains at “high†after the July 7 terrorist suicide bombings in London’s underground rail tunnels.

Many of the USA’s commuter rail and subway systems are much more difficult to secure than airports because they are vast and open. Several cities have bolstered security by adding to what’s already available: more cameras, more bomb-sniffing dogs and more announcements reminding people to report suspicious behavior and packages.


via Brian Noggle

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim Henley says:

    This is handing Al Qaeda a cheap victory. Imagine the costs of this measure. (Including, of course, the productivity loss of slowing down NYC commuting times.) Given Al Qaeda’s clear desire to bleed Coalition economies, the London attacks just got that much more successful.

  2. Kenny says:

    might be a good thing if they actually racially-profiled…checking old ladies bags is not going to do anything

  3. dp says:

    When you do the math and realize that the odds of being involved in a terrorist attack on a mass transit system are akin to being struck by lightning, you have to wonder if it’s worth it to take one step closer to making America an all-out police state. What an awful waste of money and an invasion of privacy just to delay the inevitable.

  4. Scott in CA says:

    Checking middle-eastern looking males would be a far better idea. Screw the racial profiling mafia. You don’t like it, then walk.