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NJ Transit prepares for GOP convention

(The following article by Joe Malinconico and Ron Marsico was posted on the Newark Star-Ledger website on August 25.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- Never before has NJ Transit imposed security measures as comprehensive as what authorities have devised for next week's Republican National Convention.

From Sunday through Friday, every train heading into Manhattan will undergo an inspection at its last stop on the way into New York -- either at Newark Penn Station or Secaucus Junction.

Police officers waiting on the platforms will board the trains -- one officer per passenger car -- and check for unattended packages or anything else they deem suspicious. Bomb-sniffing dogs will accompany many of the officers.

Authorities will do all this while attempting not to disrupt schedules on the busiest stretch of passenger railroad in the country, on crowded trains where riders often stand shoulder to shoulder during rush hour.

"The train schedules are in the back of my head, but the most important thing that's in the front of my head is security," NJ Transit Police Chief Joseph Bober said.

In addition to the last-stop sweeps, authorities are also going to check all trains before they leave the rail yards, conduct spot-checks along the way and deploy undercover officers to ride with commuters.

Law enforcement agencies have lent NJ Transit 54 bomb-sniffing dogs to bolster a squad that normally has only six K-9s. During the convention week, NJ Transit is locking most bathrooms on the trains, sealing trash bins and banning luggage from overhead racks.

Among other rail systems, only Amtrak is committed to matching NJ Transit's efforts by checking every train car before it heads into Manhattan. PATH and the Long Island Rail Road, meanwhile, will take more limited measures.

Over the past two weekends, NJ Transit Police and State Police have been conducting practice sweeps to try to ensure things go as smoothly as possible during the Republican convention.

"When you practice something, you perfect it," Bober said. "By next week, we'll have this down to a science."

At times on Sunday morning, the contingent of about 25 police officers participating in the drills outnumbered the passengers waiting on the platform at track 1 in Newark Penn Station.

Lisa Spiller, a rider from Flemington, did not realize it was only a drill. She reached over and grabbed the hand of her 7-year-old son Stephen while her 12-year-old daughter Colleen stood nearby.

"I was wondering what was going on," Spiller said. "I've never seen so many police here."

"It makes me think about how things have changed," said Kevin Arthur of Bloomfield, another passenger. "A few years ago, you would never see anything like this. It gives me a good feeling that they're taking this seriously."

Preparation for the drills started earlier this month when transit crews erected new overhead signs at the station platform marking the point where 12-, 10-, eight- and six- car trains should come to a stop. In coordination with those signs, crews also painted circles on the platforms where police officers should stand so they would be waiting exactly at the passenger car doors when the trains came to rest.

On Sunday, the sweeps worked to precision. An eight-car train pulled into the station and an officer boarded. They walked end to end, checked overhead luggage racks, asking riders about bags resting on the seats.

After the officers finished their inspections, they returned to the circles on the platform and held red glow sticks above their heads, the signal that they had completed checking their cars. Only after the train master confirmed that each officer was holding up the glow stick was the train allowed to continue on its route.

Most of the sweeps on the sparsely filled trains were done within a minute. But authorities realize the inspections may not be so quick on congested cars during weekday rush hour, especially once the dogs are put to use.

"This is not about beating the clock, it's about safety," NJ Transit spokeswoman Penny Bassett Hackett said.

At Newark Penn Station yesterday, state Attorney General Peter Harvey; Sidney Caspersen, director of the state's Office of Counter-Terrorism; Samuel Plumeri Jr., superintendent of the Port Authority Police Department, and Bober joined forces to reiterate New Jersey's plans to safeguard its transportation network during the convention.

The officials said they are counting on the public's help to notify police about any suspicious activities.

Bober said the agency has "reached out to our customers and employees and asked them to be an extra set of eyes and ears for our NJ Transit Police Department."

A new advertising campaign also has been launched to familiarize the public with the toll-free numbers to call to report suspicious activities. The statewide tips hotline is (866) 4-SAFE-NJ (472-3365), while bus or train commuters are asked to call NJ Transit's line, (888) TIPS-NJT (847-7658) or the Port Authority's number, (800) 828-PAPD (7273).

Using a picture of a cell phone, a Port Authority ad says: "Fight terrorism one cell at a time."

Harvey said the stepped-up security initiatives will respect civil rights.

"This is not an effort to profile anyone," he said. "It is an attempt to identify conduct."

Harvey urged citizens to be diligent if they see people gathering in a suspicious manner in dark spaces or someone photographing critical infrastructure sites.

"Call that in, so police officers can investigate that activity to find out whether it's an innocent tourist or a terrorist planning an attack," Harvey said.

Caspersen added, "Let us be the ones to go out and investigate it."

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

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