The Brooklyn subway attack in April was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the nation’s mass transit system. The thousands of commuters combined with multiple exits and entrances make subway, bus, and rail systems extremely difficult to secure.
An added complication is that there is always tension between security and convenience. The point of mass transit is to move large crowds of people. So security and efficiency will always be in conflict. Understanding that constraint is essential to coming up with workable solutions.
It’s important to note that large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, or D.C. aren’t alone in facing these challenges. Even mid-sized cities such as St. Louis, where I’m located, must develop strategies for securing their transit systems and safeguarding the public from attacks. After all, mass transit is critical infrastructure, and as a nation we need to allocate funds to harden it against attacks, whether from domestic or foreign terrorists, lone wolf actors, or individuals who may be mentally or emotionally ill.
The following five strategies can help law enforcement bolster their mass transit security:
Re-evaluate Current Security
Of course, every transit authority prioritizes security and has the usual contingent of law enforcement, cameras, entrance and exit stiles, and other measures to counter crime and prevent security breaches. These include uniformed officers, plainclothes police, and security cameras. However, what was adequate pre-9/11, or even 10 years ago, may no longer be effective. If security hasn’t been updated in recent years, it’s time to take a look with fresh eyes. Especially regarding technology, there are additional challenges – but also solutions.
Most people see subway trains as mechanical systems. However, they’re actually largely automated, and any automated feature is vulnerable to being hacked. Imagine the chaos that can be caused if the software that opens and closes subway doors is compromised. Any door that requires a keycard, such as to a maintenance area, can also be hacked. Cameras can be turned off or turned away, or their files erased.
The challenges of a networked environment mean that anything on the network is vulnerable. However, transit authorities can strengthen their security by taking advantage of the same network infrastructure. So-called smart cities use digital technology and data collection to make cities safer and reduce crime by sharing the data they collect using artificial intelligence. The same technology can be used to connect transit system security data.
A transit system that networks its cameras, radios, sensors, and other devices can share data as suspicious activity occurs. Maybe a camera follows an individual who sets down a bag on a subway platform. This could be flagged as suspicious, and the device can share the data on the system. Curb-to-platform sensors, which are being designed by the Science and Technology unit of the Department of Homeland Security, could be used to monitor and assess threats as people move through the station.
Conduct Camera Audits
Cameras are important tools in the security toolkit. However, too many agencies set and forget them. Transit authorities should complete technology audits from top to bottom, at least quarterly. This security audit should cover the recording time, camera model and features, such as the ability to zoom or pan, maintenance schedule, training schedule, and obsolescence. Camera placement may need to be reviewed as well.
As technology advances, agencies will want to phase in new equipment with new features. While this depends on budget, it is important not to rely on outdated equipment that no longer functions at full capacity. At Maryville University, where I teach, I have developed phase-out plans and keep detailed records of the models, the years in use, when training was completed, when new technology needs to brought on, etc.
Commit to Training
Training isn’t sending out a link to a webinar, having officers scroll through, and then take a small quiz. Instead, there needs to be more intentionality from agencies regarding training.
Training is the actual physical application of the particular function. After trainees have gone through that function, they are evaluated and given various ways to improve and meet set criteria.
Besides more effective training, transit authorities must conduct regular tabletop exercises with all stakeholders involved, such as state, local, and federal law enforcement and city administrators. With each iteration, agency personnel will develop a greater culture of awareness and insight, learning more about their systems along with their strengths and vulnerabilities.
Establish a Security Center
One of the most effective strategies to counter terrorism and other security threats is a coordinated security center that combines city leadership and state, local, and federal law enforcement. Most large metros already go by the model, but even mid-sized cities should operate a fusion center.
The advantages are manyfold. It’s helpful to have one lens to view all of these security tools, from cameras to panic buttons to radio communications between law enforcement, and beyond. Information is no longer siloed but is disseminated among all stakeholders. There’s no chokepoint where information isn’t getting through.
These security centers have become standard practice in law enforcement after 9/11. Several large businesses and organizations have gone this route, as well as utilities and other infrastructure. Since mass transit is part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, establishing a security operations center is an important part of security response and prevention.
- Educate the Public
Lastly, millions of commuters use mass transit every day. Getting buy-in from the public will not just help people understand the importance of security procedures but also how they can help. Security measures aren’t there to hinder them from getting from place to place. Educating the public can bring them in to the process and help develop individuals who care a little bit more about their surroundings. Rather than being disgruntled or inconvenienced, they have a greater understanding of the secure environment, and will be more likely to call in tips or otherwise participate in safety and security efforts.
There’s no one silver bullet to preventing security breaches. Agencies have to take a multilayered approach, combining a number of different solutions. This means the physical presence of uniformed officers for deterrence and plainclothes officers to provide surveillance. It also means cameras, along with panic buttons such as the blue light boxes on college campuses. As cities become more digitally interconnected, another layer will be smart sensors that gather data as commuters travel from points A to B. Finally, it requires a central post to coordinate all of this data and make sense of it, as well as to effectively respond to a threat.
Allocating funds to update security can seem expensive, but an attack will be even more costly. Unfortunately, terrorists see mass transit as an opportunity to make a big splash. Transit systems are one of the more open systems out there. It’s time to take steps to ensure that cities have the appropriate safeguards in place.