NY subway riders wary of searches

NEW YORK — Under a new policy that many say is unconstitutional and sure to lead to greatly increased racial profiling, anyone entering New York City’s subway system is now subject to random police searches.

The new rules have been touted round-the-clock since the July 14 London subway bombing attempts. “Starting July 22, bags, backpacks, large containers, are subject to random search by the police,” warns a pre-recorded message on every train.

“Empowering police officers to conduct random searches of individuals without suspicion of criminal wrongdoing constitutes a gross infringement of the fundamental rights and liberties of persons living in a free society,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), in a statement posted on the group’s website. “Conducting random searches of persons traveling in the mass transit system will do little if anything to enhance the public safety.”

A New York Times article headlined “It’s Time for Tougher Scrutiny, Many Subway Riders Concede” suggested that most New Yorkers accepted the searches as an unpleasant necessity. But recent interviews by the World yielded different results.

Said Barbara Muller, of Clifton, N.J., “This is like the next step towards a Big Brother-style government, where nothing is private anymore. It seems like that’s where everything’s going at this point. It makes me fear something like the return of the Third Reich.”

Angel Sanchez, a Bronx resident who rides the No. 2 train daily, said, “It sucks; it’s no good at all; it’s invasion of privacy. I don’t know how they’re going to allow cops to do it. It shouldn’t be done. It’s definitely unconstitutional.”

“Police can do anything,” Sanchez continued. “It’s your word against theirs, and the judge is going to pick theirs because [the police] work for the city. It’s bad business, racial profiling — the mayor says it’s not, but he can’t say whether it’s true or not, if the police just pick who they want to search.”

Ines Gonzalez, who takes the C train to work from her home in Harlem, said “It does not make me feel safer. I think it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I came from a country, Uruguay, where there was a dictatorship,” Gonzalez added. “It was very scary — people with guns, looking through people’s bags. That’s why we left there and it’s scary to see it here.”

Almost everyone interviewed opposed the new rules, but even those who generally supported the policy had reservations. Jeff Brown, who rides the R train from Queens, said that while he supports the new policy, “it’s a double-edged sword. You’ve got cops who say ‘Oh, I want to stop that guy,’ because they don’t like the looks of him. They have the right to do it now, and that’s a bad thing.”

“In some cases it may make people safer, I guess,” said Queens resident Angel Serrano. “But, from my point of view, and I speak for a lot of people I know, the police have gotten worse — the tactics, almost everything that’s evolved around the reason for these type of searches.”

As with many new policies since 9/11, it appears this will cause fear in immigrant communities. A man who said only that he was from “a country George Bush does not like” said he had a definite opinion on the matter, but would not comment because he “did not want any trouble.”

The NYCLU plans to track searches so it can analyze and possibly challenge the constitutionality of the way police conduct them. People who have been searched should file a report online at www.nyclu.org or call 212-344-3005.