Hard Won Lessons: Transit Security
Publication Date: March 2006
Author(s): Charles Sahm
Keywords: transit security; terrorism; transit systems
Coverage: United States New York
As Tom Friedman has highlighted in his bestselling book The World Is Flat, the world is much smaller
and, consequently, much more dangerous than it used to be. One of the fundamental public policy
issues of our time is how to police against terrorism in this new environment while still allowing for
the free movement of people and commerce.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, transformed the way in which government, law
enforcement, and the private sector approach airline security. In the wake of the July 2005 bombing
of the London transit system and the Madrid bombings of March 2004, it is clear that al Qaeda
regards mass transit as a primary target and that more attention must be paid to the threat posed to
mass transit systems. As the 9/11 Commission noted in its final report, while many resources have
been devoted to airport security, opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or
Protecting mass transit from terrorism is an even more challenging task than protecting the nation's
air traffic network. Unlike an airplane, a bus, subway, or commuter train is in a constant state of flux, with passengers boarding and departing from numerous entry and exit points; and transit facilities
rely on open architecture and the rapid and easy movement of patrons. In addition, the sheer volume
of riders also makes it impractical to subject users of mass transit to the same intensive screening
that airline passengers undergo.
In 2003, it is estimated that Americans took 9.4 billion trips using public transportation, which includes buses, subways, rail, trolleys, and ferryboats. On an average weekday, 14 million riders use public transportation 31 million times. In contrast, on the busiest of travel days, some 2 million passengers pass through U.S. airports.
Given the fact that local law enforcement historically has been responsible for providing security to
transit systems, it is especially important that America's 710,000 local law enforcement officers, as well as the 350,000 public transportation employees are effectively trained and engaged in
protecting the country's vast mass transportation network. Homeland Security secretary Michael
Chertoff acknowledged the essential role of local law enforcement in protecting mass transit when
he testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on July 14, 2005. His remarks are
worth quoting at length:
The aviation system is a closed system, and basically, federal authority is the only government
authority that operates in the area of air travel. When it comes to, for example, subways - and here, I'm speaking from my own personal experience riding subways - a lot of the boots on the ground are local boots on the ground. They're transit police and local police and conductors and things of that sort. Although we have, for example, screeners at the airport who are federally employed, I don't think anybody would suggest that we should federally employ all subway transit police or subway conductors. The way in which we work with protecting our transit systems is to work in partnership with state and local authorities, and the boots on the ground largely are owned by those state and local authorities; they're not federal police.
Recognizing the vulnerability of the nation's public transportation system and the essential role of
state and local law enforcement, the Manhattan Institute and the Police Institute organized a conference on October 13, 2005, in Princeton, New Jersey, that brought together law enforcement
officials from across the eastern United States to share best practices on the subject of transit security.
We were pleased to have Sir Ian Johnston, Chief Constable of the British Transport Police, and
Jeroen Weimar, Director of Policing and Enforcement for the London Transport System, travel from
across the pond to share their thoughts on the July 2005 London bombings and the "hard won
lessons" that public safety officers in the United Sates can learn from their experience.
Other presenters at the daylong conference included: Peter C. Harvey, Attorney General of the
State of New Jersey; Leslie Kennedy, Dean of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice; Robert Wasserman, Chairman of Strategic Policy Partnership; Joseph Bober, Chief of the New Jersey Transit Police; Thomas O. Reilly, Administrator of the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General; John Cohen, Homeland Security Policy Advisor for Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety; Tim Connors of the Center for Policing Terrorism at the Manhattan Institute; and Mia Bloom, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati and author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.
In addition to the formal presentations, valuable discussion took place among all the gathered law
enforcement officials about the measures that they have taken to heighten transit security, both
before and after the London bombings. We were honored to have brought together numerous state
and local police chiefs from up and down the I-95 corridor, as well as representatives from the NY/NJ
Port Authority, the Department of Homeland Security, the New Jersey Transit Police, and Amtrak.
This publication summarizes some of the information shared and lessons learned from that conference.
We hope you find this publication useful, and we encourage you to view our other resources at:
www.cpt-mi.org and www.policeinstitute.org.