NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 4, 2005

Despite the intense publicity, New York police are checking a tiny fraction of the 4.5 million commuters who use the subways each day. The searches are voluntary. Those who object can leave the station, no questions asked. Anyone carrying explosives or a weapon can simply return later or use a different entrance.

The haphazard searching in New York is merely cosmetic and about as effective as a scarecrow in a field, says USA Today:

  • Two weeks of random searches, at a cost of more than $1.3 million a week in police overtime, have produced no arrests or weapons confiscated, an NYPD spokesman said.
  • Unlike airports, with their more tightly controlled access and checkpoints, mass transit systems are vast and open, having many unsecured entrances and exits.
  • Airport-style security that screens every passenger is virtually impossible and would cause intolerable delays for commuters.

If random searches and racial profiling aren't the answer, what is? These ideas seem wiser, says USA Today:

  • Focusing on those who fit a behavior profile makes more sense than randomly searching grandmothers and children.
  • Less obtrusive, more objective measures -- such as use of detection sensors, bomb-sniffing dogs and security cameras -- are a far more effective use of scarce resources than random searches.
  • Campaigns to encourage transit riders to report suspicious activity and unattended bags, such as New York's "if you see something, say something" program, should be maintained and expanded.

Random searches provide a false sense of security and divert resources from policing designed to snuff out terrorist plots in their early stages. Giving up some privacy in return for security is unavoidable these days, but only as long as the intrusion has a realistic payoff. This search policy doesn't, says USA Today.

Source: Editorial, "Subway searches prove futile: Stopping commuters randomly is more cosmetic than effective," USA Today, August 3, 2005.


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