Lessons learned from the Brooklyn subway shooting

April 29, 2022
Experts weigh in on the potential impact of the attack on mass transit and how the industry can better stay ahead of future threats

Earlier this month, the nation was rocked by yet another mass shooting as a gunman tossed smoke bombs and fired more than 30 rounds into a subway car in Brooklyn, wounding 10 people. At least 19 others also suffered injuries during the incident.  The suspect, identified by authorities as 62-year-old Frank James, was later apprehended following a citywide manhunt.   

The attack immediately evoked memories of the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting that left six people dead and 19 others wounded before the gunman, Colin Ferguson, was tackled and detained by fellow passengers.

The shooting has also once again raised questions about security on the country’s mass transit systems, many of which have suffered declining ridership numbers in the wake of Covid-19 and a growing perception that mass transit is unsafe. Earlier this week, it was reported that the Philadelphia transit system – the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) – experienced a more than 80% increase in robberies and aggravated assaults from 2019 to 2021, even with ridership at about half of its pre-Covid levels.      

Unlike airports where the Transportation Security Administration controls access to so-called “sterilized” areas by funneling passengers and workers through security checkpoints, transit systems have multiple points of ingress and egress, making that same level of screening logistically unfeasible.

According to Randy Clarke, President and CEO of Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, who previously served as Senior Director of Security of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in Boston, transit is an open system by its very nature, however; that doesn’t mean that transit agencies can ever let their guard down when it comes to terrorism.

“We always have to be vigilant,” he says. “There are a lot of variables in this world, and we have to do everything we can to mitigate safety and security risks."

However, Clarke says there are also many things that are simply outside the control of transit authorities, with gun violence being chief among them. “Arguably, it the disease of the 21st century and it is inflicting enormous harm across the country and transit systems are obviously part of the community and will sometimes be impacted by that,” Clarke adds.  

Dr. Brian Gant, a Professor of Cybersecurity at Maryville University who also has nearly two decades of corporate and federal government experience in critical infrastructure and executive protection, says that most transit systems already have solid counterterrorism plans in place, but in some cases, those plans have not been properly put through their paces.

“Most of the time, especially in major cities, they have evaluations of current security protocols or audits, if you will, of transit camera systems, radios, sensors or any kind of devices that share data about any kind of suspicious activity,” Gant explains. “Running tabletop exercises or things like that to test those systems, I think is what we need to get back more in the habit of and I think there is just a natural complacency. In a world where we are constantly being attacked, we tend to get a little complacent.”

Aside from the open nature of transit, Gant says just having the sheer manpower resources necessary to respond to security threats is a significant challenge.

“Plainclothes officers conducting counterintelligence and having uniformed officers in and out of trains or other types of mass transit – just having that presence often deters a lot of criminal activity as well,” he says.

Addressing Societal Issues

According to Clarke, it has also fallen upon transit systems to address larger societal issues, such homelessness and mental health. Although most of the homeless population poses no threat to passengers, there are those who perceive a transit system to be unsafe if they see a homeless individual riding a train or a bus, which Clarke says is “obviously not correct.”   

For its part, Clarke says Capital Metro has invested in mental health specialists who travel the system daily attempting to help people who may be experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis.

“Every person that we can connect to good services, back to their family or other scenarios, not only does that actually make the system feel safer, we're actually from a human point of view, working towards solving a problem,” he says.

Additionally, Clarke says Capital Metro has brought in “public safety ambassadors” as way to provide a “civilian touchpoint” for de-escalation of incidents rather than having to call upon law enforcement to address every issue.

“So, if someone complained about a mask or a fare or what have you, we don't necessarily need a police officer ripping someone off a bus. What we need sometimes is someone to calm the situation down and relate to someone on a one-on-one level and de-escalate and kind of resolve a scenario,” he explains. “We've invested heavily on that and that allows then the public safety, law enforcement side to concentrate on true threats, significant issues, investigations, or things of that nature. I think you are seeing a really nice push in the transit space to say, ‘We are more than trains and buses.’ At the end of the day, people are going to interact at our stations, our stops, our vehicles, and we have to step in and kind of be a little bit more proactive on the community side of engagement, not just the policing side.”

More Technology Coming?

Although some transit systems across the country have piloted new weapons screening systems and other technologies that allow for the high throughput requirements of the sector, by and large experts say that a patchwork of state and local laws and budget constraints make universally deploying solutions of this nature an impossibility in the current environment.

For example, with Texas being an open carry state, passengers are free to take firearms onboard whereas that is not possible in a place like New York or Boston.

Although he hopes that TSA-type screening does not have to be implemented on mass transit at some point later down the road, Gant says the country really needs to get back to the post-9/11 mindset that fostered increased vigilance and cooperation.

“That is where this whole (paradigm) of having an operations center with a representative from every level of government – state, local, federal and private transit – originated and we need to really get back to that fusion center focus,” Gant says.   

Joel Griffin is the Editor of SecurityInfoWatch.com and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].