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Opinion: Public transit and security

(The following editorial was posted on the New York Times website on July 21.)

NEW YORK -- Until the attacks in London two weeks ago, efforts to secure the trains and buses that carry some seven million riders through the New York City area every day have moved with too-deliberate speed. The state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with some $600 million in state and federal funds to spend on system security, has managed to spend only a small fraction of that amount. The authority now says it is ready to spend more than half of the money by the end of the year, and spend it efficiently. That's welcome but overdue news. That nothing horrible has happened in the city's public transit system is no reason to put off what can be done now to reduce the risk of attack.

Behind the delay were bureaucratic issues and miscalculations, including the dismissal of the authority's two top security officials and a failed effort to employ the United States Army to design a security plan. A larger long-range hurdle is the difficulty of making security systems work in the fast-moving world of mass transit. The federal government should be spending far more money and energy developing new technology, and adapting walk-though detectors that check for explosives' residue to make them practical for subways. The same goes for smart cameras that detect unusual movements in crowds, or even unattended parcels.

For right now, though, the M.T.A. is sensibly going low-tech. It is using more of its funds to add to the ranks of its own small police force and to train and use bomb-sniffing dogs. And, even better, it is moving to help finance the nearly $2 million in weekly overtime pay going to city police officers.

Since the July 7 attacks, New York has put officers on every subway platform and on every train. But more is needed. The department had nearly 41,000 officers in 2000, and now has just over 37,000, with only 1,000 dedicated to counterterrorism work. That's too few. The attacks of Sept. 11, and on public transportation in Madrid, Moscow and London, mean that more police officers will be needed here for the long term.

Officers cannot be everywhere, of course, so there should be an immediate increase in the number of surveillance cameras for public transit. There are nearly 3,000 such devices in the subway system, but there should be many more.

Cellphones should also be able to function wherever possible. The likelihood of such phones being used to trigger explosive devices is outweighed by the assistance they could provide to the innocent in an emergency. It would probably be too costly to wire the entire subway system for cellphone reception, but it would be a good start to begin wiring the stations.

It's telling that the number of calls to the police to report suspicious packages on the city's subways and buses tripled after the London attacks. The M.T.A.'s campaign for vigilance - "If you see something, say something" - has indeed raised commuters' awareness. Now the authority needs to work harder to lower commuters' anxiety.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

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