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MBTA to start random searches for bombs

(The following article by Mac Daniel was posted on the Boston Globe website on October 6.)

BOSTON -- Starting as soon as next week, the MBTA will become only the second transit system in the nation to conduct regular, random searches of passenger bags and packages for explosives, Governor Mitt Romney announced yesterday.

MBTA Transit Police -- deployed throughout the system on commuter trains, subways, buses, and commuter boats -- will randomly choose riders and use a chemically treated piece of cloth to swab the zippers, bottom, or handles of their carry-ons.

Officers will place the swab in a portable machine that can detect explosives residue. The process will take less than a minute per passenger. If there is probable cause, officers will ask passengers to open bags and packages.

Passengers who refuse the search won't be allowed into the transit system, and any person refusing to leave could be arrested.

T officials pledged that the searches would not significantly slow the T's 1.1 million passengers on the average workday. In some cases, trains will be held so that passengers being searched will not miss their rides.

Civil liberties groups, however, immediately said they would review the plan and possibly challenge it in court as a violation of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

The MBTA conducted similar searches during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, not causing major delays, but prompting a lawsuit.

In addition to the random inspections, Romney said, Transit Police will deploy ``impact teams" dressed in black tactical uniforms and trained in antiterrorism and behavioral recognition techniques, to deter attacks and crime by increasing police visibility.

Romney said he did not order the move in response to a specific terrorist threat, though he did cite attacks on rail targets in Madrid, London, and Mumbai, India, since 2004 that have killed more than 400 commuters.

``We are fighting a war against people that have as their objective mass murder and mayhem," the governor said at a morning press conference. ``Given a very different threat, we need different tactics."

He said that a more immediate trigger for the move, first reported yesterday in The New York Times, was a federal appeals court ruling in August that upheld random bag searches on New York subways, the nation's busiest with 4.7 million passengers on an average weekday. The ruling, which does not apply to Massachusetts, said the searches are constitutional and an effective and minimally invasive way to help protect a prime target for terrorists.

New York began random hand inspections of carry-ons at 400 stations after the London bombings in July 2005 and started screening for explosives residue in November 2005 using technology similar to that Boston will use.

No explosives have been uncovered, and it's unknown whether the searches have deterred an attack, New York Police Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne said yesterday.

Like the program Romney announced for the T, New York's program will continue indefinitely.

In New York, police open the bags of randomly selected passengers and look quickly to locate explosives, Browne wrote in an e-mail response to questions. They do not open small purses and do not inspect or read written material, he said. Subway riders can leave stations rather than have their bags searched, but can be arrested if they try to leave once they are chosen for inspection.

New York's searches are largely based on Boston's search policy during the July 2004 convention, Romney said.

``These, I believe, are reasonable measures to keep the public safe," Romney said. The T will ``strictly conform to the constitutional standards" set by the appeals court ruling on New York's program, he said.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was the first subway system in the nation to begin random inspections of bags and packages when it did so for the Democratic convention, the first national political convention after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The searches ended after the convention, and officials said they found no suspicious devices.

The National Lawyers Guild and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee went to federal court to object to the policy of searching all Orange Line passengers before their trains passed the convention site, but the program was upheld. The lawsuit challenged only the Orange Line searches, not the legitimacy of randomly stopping passengers in general.

``We have concerns generally about any system that requires a person as a condition of using public mass transit to submit to a search," said John Reinstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

He asked whether police not using the explosives detection machines would have the authority to ask riders to open their bags, and what police will do if the machines issue a false-positive result.

MBTA Transit Police Chief Joseph C. Carter raised that possibility yesterday, saying passengers carrying nitroglycerine tablets in bags to treat heart conditions could trigger the machines.

Carter said officers would be trained to ask riders questions about medications to rule out false-positive readings.

Reinstein said the ACLU's greatest concern is the use of behavioral profiling by the roving teams.

``If all they are doing is observing and being a visible presence, there's obviously nothing wrong with that," he said. ``But there's a tension between one's right to not speak to police when approached on the street and their right not to be detained without a lawful basis."

During the 2004 convention, the T Riders Union, an organization representing regular users of the system, alleged that officers would lapse into racial and ethnic profiling.

Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts, said she was concerned about the new random search program, but said she wanted to read the full policy and see it in action before reacting.

Carter said that the teams doing the behavioral profiling will be supervised by a sergeant and that officers will document the age, race, and gender of people stopped, to ensure that they avoid profiling.

Reaction to the searches was mixed among several passengers interviewed yesterday at Park Street station, who were all carrying a briefcase or backpack.

``It seems as though it would be pretty inconvenient," said Rachel Cohen, 22, a student at New England School of Law. ``When does it begin to interfere in your personal freedom?"

Margaret Van Deuson, 52, of Brookline, an environmental attorney, said she wanted a fuller accounting of the move. ``What I would ask is that they explain why it's necessary," she said.

Friday, October 6, 2006

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