By Alex Nagler
July 2005 was a year after the Republican National Convention, but it brought a change to the city that seemed more fitting for the RNC. This steamy month in the middle of yet another New York City summer was the official start of random bag searches on the New York City subway. The searches were challenged in August of that year by the NYCLU, the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, and brought to court in October of the same year.
A district court judge ruled in December that there exists a “real and substantial” threat to the City’s transit system. Acknowledging that the searches were a minimal invasion to the privacy of New Yorkers, the judge at hand declared them constitutional. And so, life continued on for New Yorkers, as it always does, with the rare random search dotting the map of the city’s subway system here and there.
But do they really do anything to safeguard commuters? As the NYCLU geared up for trial back in 2005, they did a little study of their own to determine the effectiveness of the searches. Over a three-week period of time in 2005, when the program first debuted and the NYPD was showing it off, 5,500 subway entrances were monitored for presence of checkpoints. Of these 5,500 entrances, 99.4%, or 5,467, had no checkpoints. A scant 0.6%, 33 of the 5,500 entrances monitored had checkpoints. Of these 33, many existed in stations with multiple entrances, meaning that if someone really had something to hide, they could simply walk up and around, avoid the checkpoint all together and get whatever nefarious package they were in possession of onto the subway.
Things may have changed since 2005, but there aren’t any studies to substantiate that idea. Also, authorities haven’t addressed any potential ethnic or racial biases in the checkpoints. Now, you may be wondering 300 words in, why report on an issue from 2005 dealing with New York City when this is a Long Island paper in 2008? I’ll tell you why: I was checked for the first time ever on June 30, 2008 coming back from work.
I have an internship with the Office of the Public Advocate that requires me to commute every day on the R line between home and City Hall. On a good day the trip will take me half an hour or so to get from the platform on Bay Ridge Avenue to the platform at City Hall. Home has two entrances to the subway and could be easily patrolled. City Hall has four entrances, spread out from each other in a way that would require a more substantial force to properly patrol. If the NYPD wanted to really ensure that searches were being correctly conducted, sending two officers to check bags during the afternoon commute is not the most effective means of ensuring the safety of New Yorkers.
These stops, inconvenient as they are, are not as flagrant a violation of civil rights as some have protested. They’re a hindrance, a nuisance, and annoying, but in the same vein as a limited search. We consent to them by handing over our bag, therefore making them legal. Sadly, there will always exist a potential threat, making the time and circumstance of the search valid.
Worse, there exists a fact that seems to be present in all “random” searches; they’re not exactly random. Minorities are searched far more frequently than non-minorities, especially if they are male. If the NYPD wants to make safety a more pressing concern, fund the program more and increase patrols, but make sure that for every minority who gets searched simply for being of that ethnic group, a white guy like me gets their bag checked. As long as we all get to our train on time, I’m not complaining.