Jack Schinasi, of Yonkers, New York, left, has his bag inspected by members of the New York Police Department upon entering the Woodlawn subway station in the Bronx borough of New York, Friday July 22, 2005. Random inspections were made at the station whe
Photo credit: AP Photo/Tina Fineberg
NEW YORK (AP) - Alarmed by a new round of mass transit attacks in London, police in New York have begun random searches of bags and packages brought into the city's vast subway system and elsewhere.
The inspections started on a small scale Thursday in Manhattan and were to be expanded during Friday morning's rush hour.
The new measures netted one arrest almost immediately, with authorities saying a man with a record involving a pipe bomb was found with a weapons cache outside a Long Island commuter train station.
Gilbert Hernandez, 34, was arrested during Thursday evening's rush hour at the Brentwood Long Island Rail Road station, where authorities stopped him after noticing something suspicious about his van. They reportedly found a machete, imitation handguns, an electronic stun gun and a martial arts weapon in the vehicle. They said Hernandez had been convicted of possessing a pipe bomb in 1996. It was unclear if he had yet been charged, and other details were not immediately available.
While the new measure was largely welcomed by commuters, some civil rights groups voiced concern it may lead to racial profiling or privacy violations - a fear city officials say is baseless.
Under the new system, officers, some with bomb-sniffing dogs, will stop people carrying bags as they enter subways, buses and ferries at various points in the city, police said. Anyone who refuses a search will be turned away, and those caught carrying drugs or other contraband could be arrested.
Police officials said they had considered taking the measure to thwart bombings for the past three years. Two terrorist attacks on transit targets in London forced them to act, said Paul Browne, the police department's chief spokesman.
Browne called it "the first time this regimen has been used in (New York's) transit system."
On Thursday, a cluster of officers was seen stopping five men over a 15-minute period as they entered the subway in Union Square at evening rush hour. In each instance, the officers peered briefly into their bags, then waved them through.
"If it serves a purpose, I'm OK with it," said one of the men, James Washington, 45, about being stopped.
Officials declined to specify where and how frequently the checks would occur or how long they would last. The NYPD already had doubled the number of officers who patrol the subway after the initial attack in London on July 7, at a cost of $2 million (euro1.64 million) a week in overtime.
Those bombings killed 52 people and four suicide bombers. On Thursday, four small explosions struck the London Underground and a bus in a far less bloody attack. The only reported injury was an asthma attack.
"We just live in a world where, sadly, these kinds of security measures are necessary," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "Are they intrusive? Yes, a little bit. But we are trying to find that right balance."
The New York Civil Liberties Union warned that the new measures violate basic rights and could invite racial or religious profiling.
"The plan is not workable and will not make New Yorkers more secure but will inconvenience them as police go about finding a needle in a haystack," NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said.
New York's subways carry about 4.5 million passengers on the average weekday, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The system, the largest in the country, has more than 468 stations, most of which have multiple entrances, and during rush hours the flood of humanity in and out of key stations can be overwhelming.
William K. Williams, a 56-year-old Manhattan resident who rides the train every day, said the searches would frustrate New Yorkers.
"Sometimes you need to get to an appointment, you're running late and a cop stops you to delay you even further? That's going to create a mess," said Williams, who was carrying a briefcase outside the Brooklyn Bridge station of the subway.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said passengers selected for searches will be approached by officers, who will ask them what they're carrying and request that they open their bags. Those who decline "can't enter the system," he said.
Associated Press writers Sara Kugler, David Caruso and Elizabeth LeSure contributed to this report.