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NJ Transit searches off to a smooth start

(The following article by Joe Malinconico and Ron Marsico was posted on the Newark Star-Ledger website on July 26.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- Authorities imposed unprecedented security inspections on New Jersey's mass transit system yesterday, searching the belongings of more than 1,000 riders before they boarded trains, buses and ferries.

Never before -- not even in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- has NJ Transit or the Port Authority conducted extensive random checks of passengers' baggage, officials said.

But the first day of the searches seemed to go smoothly, without producing significant delays or kicking up much of a fuss from commuters. Many riders said they welcomed the checkpoints as the region tries to guard against terrorist bombings like the ones that killed more than 50 train and bus commuters in London on July 7.

Officials said a handful of people yesterday refused to let their bags be searched and they were not allowed to ride. But most passengers who were interviewed after their belongings were searched yesterday said they supported the security crackdown.

"Just the thought of it being done makes you feel safer," said Chris Araujo, hopping on a PATH train at Journal Square in Jersey City for Manhattan after his bags were searched.

"It was quick and painless," said Steve Martino of Rochelle Park after his bag was checked when he switched trains at NJ Transit's Secaucus Junction.

By no means were the security searches pervasive. Officials said they would deploy the inspection teams at different stations and terminals at different times on different days.

At busy Newark Penn Station, for example, commuters were surprised yesterday morning when police on the train platforms were not checking packages.

"That's the whole point -- surprise," said NJ Transit Police Chief Joseph Bober. "The people don't know where we're going to be doing the inspections, and neither do the guys who want to cause harm to us."

New Jersey's mass transit searches followed a similar decision last week by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to institute random checks on the New York City subways, Long Island Railroad and Metro North trains.

The American Civil Liberties Union has raised objections, arguing that the inspections violate riders' constitutional protection against unreasonable searches. On some Internet forums, commuters questioned the effectiveness and legitimacy of the checkpoints.

Tim Hansen of Manhattan was toting a backpack when he walked past Port Authority Police officers at the 33rd Street station yesterday morning without being stopped for a search on his way to work in Newark. Nevertheless, the prospect of being stopped troubled him somewhat from a civil liberties standpoint.

"I don't feel great about it," said Hansen, who works in the publishing field. "My initial reaction was it's these kind of small things that add up" to impeding "your freedom to travel around."

At Penn Station in New York, city police officer Alan Silverberg used a low-volume megaphone to tell subway riders about the new search policy, as he walked back and forth near the entrance to the C and E lines.

From 5 a.m. until 10 a.m., Silverberg carried a written warning, which read in part: "If you do not agree to this inspection, you must exit the transit system immediately. Thank you for your cooperation."

Carla Ash of Elizabeth said she did not see any searches on the two legs of her trip to Manhattan, traveling on the Raritan Valley line before switching trains in Newark.

"I guess it's better that they're checking stuff," said Ash. "It doesn't bother me -- as long as I can get to work on time."

At Secaucus Junction, NJ Transit Police Capt. Nicholas Lucarelli stood near the escalators, counting heads as commuters walked past him. Every few people, he picked someone to be searched by two police officers who were stationed to his left and right. A bomb-sniffing dog waited nearby in case they found anything suspicious.

By picking which people would be searched based on a specific head count, officials said they would ensure the randomness of the inspections and prevent profiling based on race or ethnicity. From day to day, Bober said he personally would set the sequence for pulling people to the side for searches.

"It takes the discretion out of the officers' hands and places it solely in mine," the chief said.

Several people waiting for trains at Newark Penn Station yesterday morning said they would have preferred to see bomb-sniffing dogs and checkpoints on the boarding platforms, just as they had seen last August when there was a high-security alert during the Republican National Convention.

"They should be doing what they said they would be doing," said Jim Cramer of Newark. "They should follow through."

"I'm not concerned," said Demetrios Tserpelis of Livingston. "I think there's a lot going on that we don't see or hear in terms of security."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

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