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The “Oh” Police: Transit Police and Counterterrorism

By Steve Dunham

Journal of Homeland Security, July 2002. Copyright 2002 Analytic Services. Reprinted by permission.

When transit police arrive at the scene of an emergency, they are often asked, “Who are you with?” When they reply, “Transit,” they sometimes hear, “Oh.” That, said Mary F. Rabadeau, New Jersey Transit chief of police, is why they call themselves the “Oh” Police.

To some emergency managers and first responders, transit police are the overlooked resource. To others, they are indispensable partners. Polly L. Hanson, chief of police for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, recalled that one high-level security planning meeting in Washington failed to include her department, and then–Attorney General Janet Reno asked, “Where are the transit police?”

In Washington, DC—which, according to Hanson, has the best law enforcement partnerships in the country—the transit police are not left out any more. In fact, because of their special expertise, they are routinely called on to assist other law enforcement agencies. The Secret Service took Hanson with them to a Group of Eight Nations summit. As Los Angeles and Chicago prepared for the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2000, a team from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority briefed police in those cities.

The Washington, DC, transit police are on the capital’s joint antiterrorism task force, are stationed in the Metropolitan Police command center on Independence Day, and are happy to share their information and assets, said Hanson. For example, the transit authority has cooperated in a plan to move other police officers into an area by rail if the streets are blocked. In May 2002, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority opened an emergency response safety training tunnel to provide a realistic environment for fire, police, and emergency response personnel, including SWAT teams, from local jurisdictions to use for fire and rescue exercises, disaster drills, and other simulations involving Metro trains and tunnels. The 260-foot tunnel contains two old subway cars positioned to resemble a wreck, as well as a simulated electrified third rail, cabling, and lighting that appear identical to that in a real Metro tunnel. Communications are connected to a simulated operations control center. Training in a realistic transit environment can give police an advantage in hot pursuit of a suspect, for example.

Working with other law enforcement agencies, the transit police in Washington participate in tabletop exercises and identify key points where masses of people could be vulnerable—such as the Smithsonian station, heavily used by tourists; that station now has chemical agent detectors, said Hanson, and the system has evacuation procedures in place. The transit authority plans to have chemical agent detectors at additional stations by the end of 2002; funding is committed to equip more stations in 2003 and 2004.

Hanson noted that the authority also relies heavily on its employees at every level; for example, the custodial staff are important, she said, because trash cans and salt storage containers could be used to hide weapons. The authority has removed trash cans from the paid areas of the system—everywhere within the turnstiles. It is also expanding its canine bomb-detection program, adding six dogs this year.

The Metro police take care to communicate not only with other law enforcement people, but with the system’s riders. Following the June 2002 FBI warning of possible terrorist threats to transit systems, Metro issued a “Dear Fellow Rider” bulletin, encouraging people to be aware of themselves and their surroundings and watch for suspicious activities, not just while riding Metro trains and buses but everywhere, even at home.

While the transit police are sharing their specialized knowledge, they are trying to get hold of better information themselves. They are now pushing the federal agencies for more specific and better intelligence, said John J. Haley, a managing principal of Booz Allen Hamilton. On 11 September 2001, he said, mass transit moved people in an emergency, was a central element of emergency plans, and was a credible target. Haley noted that before 11 September 2001, one transit system was a part of everybody’s contingency plans, but nobody had told the transit agency about it. Now the transit agencies need to be included in regional planning, and the federal government has been active in promoting preparedness.

The Federal Transit Administration, said Haley, contracted with Booz Allen Hamilton to help determine the transit industry’s ability to detect, deter, and respond to acts of terrorism by visiting transit systems. Booz Allen Hamilton is also working with the Federal Transit Administration and other clients in providing counterterrorism seminars, facilitating wargaming exercises, and reviewing new technologies for combating biological, chemical, and explosive attacks. In regard to new technology developments, Haley cautioned that it is important to dispel unrealistic expectations that technology can prevent biological or chemical attacks from even happening.

Haley said that it is necessary to acknowledge the open nature of transit; the right balance is to recognize the limits of technology while promoting innovation, which may come in the form of policies and procedures rather than technology. The first ten minutes of response to an emergency are critical, he said, so it is important that a transit system’s training and procedures fit into regional plans. Booz Allen Hamilton consulted with transit security people from London, where the underground railway suffered numerous bombings and threats during the height of the Irish Republican Army terror campaign. Part of the solution, said Haley, is to empower the public and the employees: give them guidelines for dealing with suspicious packages, for example, and give employees the authority to close a station if there is a credible threat. Haley also noted that it is a challenge to maintain vigilance. Nevertheless, since 11 September 2001, he said, transit systems have stepped up security and planning and have taken steps to identify the long-term impacts of the terrorist attacks.

Planning and information sharing are essential to security, but even events with planned security can have unplanned problems, noted Robert H. Prince, Jr., former general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. And then, he said, there are the events that don’t turn out as planned, as on 5 February 2002, when more than a million people showed up on City Hall plaza in Boston to greet the New England Patriots after they won the Super Bowl. The transit authority prepares for planned events by creating a book containing personnel deployment, transit vehicle headways and schedules, emergency response numbers, radio call numbers, and logistical support information for the transit authority and other agencies, including local and state law enforcement. “Information is key to any event plan,” said Prince. Besides preparing to be in control of crowds at any mass public event, the authority is on the watch for any sign of a possible threat—such as indications of a demonstration, propaganda leaflets, vandalism, or theft of uniforms.

In working with other agencies, the transit police must provide opportunities for other emergency responders to become familiar with operations in a transit environment. Virginia Railway Express has worked closely with law enforcement agencies to hold drills and exercises, including one this year in which law-enforcement people staged a simulated assault on a train, and another involving a simulated chemical spill but which could have represented a chemical attack as well. Railroad employees also participate in drills involving suspicious packages.

After 11 September 2001, the Essex County, NJ, bomb squad had a tenfold increase in requests for bomb detection. This caused a problem for New Jersey Transit, according to the agency’s police chief, Mary F. Rabadeau. At Penn Station in Newark, the transit authority had been dependent on the Essex County bomb squad to respond to every bomb threat or suspicious parcel. That disrupted the station, sometimes for hours, having an immense impact on transportation in the area, because the station is host to hundreds of daily Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains, plus two rapid transit lines and intercity and local buses. The best resource the agency could provide with the most apparent and immediate impact was canine bomb-detection teams. After interviewing people at other agencies that had their own canine bomb-detection squads, New Jersey Transit chose the Essex County police to train the transit police on New Jersey Transit property—on trains and buses and in stations and other facilities where the teams would be working. The program was fairly inexpensive, using dogs that had washed out of seeing-eye training but were calm and obedient—fine for bomb detection. New Jersey Transit customized three road vehicles so that the teams could operate statewide, presenting themselves without notice. By patrolling Penn Station, the teams have hardened it as a target and are welcomed by passengers, said Rabadeau. Because nearly all bomb alerts turn out to be false, the fast response minimizes disruption to the flow of trains and passengers. The teams also give demonstrations at schools and terminals and provide assistance to other agencies.

The transit police may sometimes be the “oh” police, but in combating terrorism they have been in the game longer than many other domestic law enforcement agencies, particularly since the 1995 chemical attack on the Tokyo subway system. The response of the New York City Police Department on 11 September 2001 was the result of drills, contacts, and preparation ever since the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, according to Leonard E. Diamond, the Senior Security and Emergency Management Specialist with the Federal Transit Administration.

In 1993, it was the New York City Transit Authority that first restored power to the World Trade Center, because the authority had portable generators that it quickly brought to the scene, according to Francis M. O’Hare, former deputy inspector and operations commander with the New York City Police Department, Transit Bureau. He noted that transit authorities often have a wealth of resources that are useful in an emergency: vehicles, power tools, torches, tow trucks, cranes, portable lighting, ropes, ladders, protective clothing, fuel, bullhorns, and electric signs, not to mention experienced personnel who have been trained in emergency procedures. On 11 September 2001, they were at the World Trade Center cutting steel, assisting with the rescue, and lending their Nextel phones to the New York Police Department.

The transit authority was able to bring its resources to bear swiftly and efficiently because the authority had already been in close contact with the city’s office of emergency management, said O’Hare. Recently the office has surveyed all agencies in the region to create an inventory of their equipment. Having equipment isn’t enough, though: managing personnel and resources is essential, he said, noting that on 11 September 2001, thousands of transit authority employees showed up at the World Trade Center wanting to help, and many of them had to be sent away.

Having an “incident command structure is the way to go,” said O’Hare. Agencies must have written coordination procedures, mutual-aid agreements, mobilization plans for off-duty or on-call employees, and training—everyone must be trained, he said. Custodians, trackwalkers, conductors—any of them could be first on the scene of an incident and need to take control.

Since 11 September 2001 it is easier to motivate employees and organizations to prepare for future attacks. After the 1993 World Trade Center attack, O’Hare heard police officers, even police chiefs, saying, “This will never happen here again.”

When Pete Sklannik, Jr., became chief operating officer of Virginia Railway Express in the summer of 2000, he asked about the railroad’s crisis response plan. The railroad did have plans for dealing with derailments and bad weather, but Sklannik told the staff, “Think of something heinous.” At the Long Island Rail Road, Sklannik had served on a committee of New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority managers in response to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. “Let’s try all the scenarios we can,” Sklannik told his staff. “Let’s start thinking like a terrorist.”

Nowadays it is not hard to convince transit authorities that they need a security audit, training, field exercises, tabletop exercises, drills, and even a plan for a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack.

They need recovery plans too, and not just to restore service—they must restore confidence, said O’Hare.

Police chief James D. O’Donnell of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which carries many thousands of passengers into Manhattan each day, noted that on the Monday following 11 September 2001, ridership on the authority’s rail lines was back to 97 percent of what it had been before the attacks. He attributed this in large part to the fact that uniformed transit police on patrol made the passengers feel safe. O’Hare said the same thing: the presence of uniformed police and employees created a feeling of security.

Although restoring transportation is a priority, preserving it during an emergency is crucial because the transit system and its ability to move masses of people quickly have to be part of an urban emergency plan. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system kept running on 11 September 2001, according to the emergency operation plan already in place. Terminology was important too: it was not an “evacuation,” because the residents of Washington weren’t leaving; it was an accelerated commute.

On 11 September 2001, the Long Island Rail Road was instructed to bring first responders into the city and evacuate the injured if the New York City hospitals couldn’t cope, according to Jose R. Fernandez, the railroad’s vice president of system safety. The hospitals didn’t overflow, however, and presently the railroad switched to general movement of people out of the city. The Long Island Rail Road has a full emergency mobilization plan that specifies who is on call each week, provides instructions for three paging methods, and lists the work, home, and paging number for every team member and manager. It also defines responsibilities, contains station diagrams, and lists the train numbers for the service at each station—a mass of information for the nation’s largest commuter railroad, which has hundreds of route-miles, nine distinct branches, and more than 700 trains each weekday. The emergency teams were called up 33 times in 2001: mostly for severe weather that interfered with regular service, or for other service disruptions, but two days in the log—11 and 12 September—note terrorism as the cause of the emergency.

Other transit agencies’ police departments have been preparing plans too, including plans specifically to counter terrorism.

Robert H. Prince, Jr., former general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, noted that a terrorist incident “is very different than most emergencies a transit system would deal with.” He pointed out that the typical transit emergency does not have the high level of threat to the responders or the unknown dangers and psychological impact and would not normally cause loss of faith in the transit authority. Combating terrorism requires special preparation.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has conducted a vulnerability assessment, generated an emergency response plan, held drills and simulations, created a mobile auxiliary command center, and obtained X-ray units, containment vessels for bomb detection, biological detectors, and digital closed-circuit television. The transit authority also has a 10-person special operations team and a bomb squad and is developing a major case unit to be responsible for weapons of mass destruction. The authority’s police department is a member of the Boston FBI office’s joint terrorist task force.

“We cannot stop an attack,” said Prince. “We may be able to harden our targets and make it more difficult. We may make it so difficult the terrorist goes elsewhere. But we should, with the right training and equipment, be able to mitigate the damage.”

Mass transit and its patrons will very likely be at the center of any future terrorist attack, maybe even its specific target. As transit police across the country continue to improve their counterterrorism capability, one thing is likely to change when they arrive on the scene: When they say, “Transit police,” instead of “Oh,” they should be hearing, “Oh, good!”