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N.J. riders shrug off searches

(The following article by Toni Callas was posted on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on July 26.)

PHILADELPHIA -- NJ Transit officials described commuters as compliant and easygoing about the first random searches conducted yesterday in rail and bus stations around the state.

Riders on the River Line between Camden and Trenton seemed indifferent to the searches, which some critics contend will not deter a terrorist attack. Notices left on seats informed riders that the searches would be conducted indefinitely.

"I don't think about it that much," said Marietta D'Alesio of Bordentown. "I see officers around, and I trust God. If something is going to happen, it's going to happen."

After a series of bomb attacks in London, acting Gov. Richard J. Codey announced Friday that state-run NJ Transit would randomly search bags at train and bus stations. The first of those searches were conducted in Trenton and at Secaucus Junction.

Passengers who do not comply with searches are to be asked to leave the stations.

"Security experts and common sense tell us that this is not going to be an effective way to fight terrorism," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

"You are just diverting police from other practices," she said, "and you are giving up your privacy, which you have a right to whether you are doing anything right or wrong."

An official in the state Attorney General's Office said the searches were legal because NJ Transit's methods provided "true, random selection" of bags.

"It's not decided by the officer on the scene," Assistant Attorney General Ronald Susswein said. "For example, on a particular day, they might be told to check every third person carrying a bag or package." The number is to be changed each day to keep riders from avoiding searches.

But officers also can challenge anyone who appears suspicious - for example, someone wearing heavy clothing on a hot day, Susswein said.

Late yesterday, the agency said, a 21-year-old man at the Hoboken terminal was arrested after police found fireworks in his bag.

At the Trenton station, Transit Officer Peter Jackson said the smoothness of the morning searches surprised him. He said there were no long lines or visible irritation as transit police, accompanied by dogs, inspected bags while commuters arrived between 6 and 8:30.

"It didn't slow anything down, and people seemed to be fine with it," Jackson said.

Amy Chesnov of Newtown, Bucks County, who arrived later in the morning, said she would not have minded a search.

"It's better to make sure everyone is safe, even if it takes a little bit longer for us to get where we are going," she said, pulling her luggage behind her.

About 780,000 trips are made each weekday on the NJ Transit system, agency spokesman Dan Stessel said.

SEPTA and Amtrak, which also operate out of the Trenton station, do not plan to begin random searches. Spokeswoman Tracy Connell said Amtrak might consider them in the future, and Gov. Rendell's office said the agency did ask for and get additional state police at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.

Said SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker: "We don't think it's a good use of our police. We'd rather have them on patrol, able to check out packages and things left behind by people, and be able to move them around than have them stuck in one place."

There were no inspections yesterday at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, where PATCO trains also stop. PATCO officials said they were considering searches as they reviewed their security plans.

Yesterday's searches came four days after similar ones began on New York's subways, the Metro-North Railroad, and the Long Island Rail Road.

The NJ Transit system has been on level-orange alert since the first London bombing July 7. At a cost of about $100,000 a week, NJ Transit has doubled its police force and tripled its canine unit, Stessel said.

River Line passenger Shareeka Miller of Camden said she feared the smaller rail line might allow a terrorist to get through.

"The searches are fine," Miller said, "but here we've been on the train for an hour and I've seen no police."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

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