It was time for a change.
After terrorists hijacked four passenger planes and slammed two into the World Trade Center buildings, one into the Pentagon, and another into a field in Pennsylvania, the way professionals approach security for mass transportation needed an overhaul.
For NJ Transit, which operates 2,027 buses, 771 trains and 45 light rail vehicles over a service area of 5,325 square miles that meant a change in mindset.
“In the past we only focused on crime and great service to customers, but now, here at NJ Transit, what we try to drive home to all our officers is that their main response is counterterrorism,” said Christopher Trucillo, chief of the NJ Transit Police Department. “I think the dynamic now is that pre-9/11, if an incident happened, we looked at it on its face; now, when that incident happens, we look at with a view to terrorism.”
What this means for NJ Transit is a new level of vigilance among NJTPD officers, a long-term effort to educate riders on what to look for in terms of safety, partnerships with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and an increase in special operations security training.
EDUCATING THE RIDER
Since Sept. 11, 2001, NJ Transit has attempted to “recruit” people who know the buses, trains, light rail vehicles and their routes the best–the riders, hoping that by educating them and giving them the resources they need to report security issues, the transportation system will be more secure.
Not only does NJ Transit take great efforts to educate riders on what to look out for, but they also have a mechanism to report suspicious activity.
Billboards, handouts, leaflets and announcements are just a few of the things used to get the message home.
“Our community is a transient community and one we see for brief periods of time in the morning or afternoon, so we have to try and get them when we have them,” Trucillo said.
Seat drops with information on simple things to look out for could include the example of someone wearing bulky warm clothing on an already warm day or list unattended packages as a possible danger.
“There’s no one thing you can place a finger on, but I think we all know when we get an uncomfortable feeling, when we say ‘something’s not right.’”
A key to this system is making sure there is a mechanism in place that allows passengers to relay their concerns easily and quickly. Part of that is the NJ Transit tips hotline and the texting initiative, “Text Tips” or “Text Against Terror,” which allows customers to report suspicious activity, packages or vehicles around NJ Transit facilities or onboard the system by sending a text message to NJTPD (65873). Messages go directly to the NJ Transit Police Department.
“We like to make them aware, not afraid. Aware, that there is a mechanism that they can use report anything that makes them uncomfortable,” Trucillo said. “If they view a criminal act or have concerns for their personal safety for whatever reason, we have always had a tips line where people can call in.”
A key to these hotlines are anonymity, Trucillo says.
“We recognize that you might not feel very comfortable getting on the phone if a person you want to alert us about is sitting right next to you.”
AUGMENTATION AND APPROACH
Before he was with NJ Transit, Trucillo was chief of the Port Authority Police Department, where he spent two decades. Being on the front lines during the Sept. 11 attacks has given him a unique perspective on how law enforcement and security has changed.
“How has policing, specifically transit policing, changed since 9/11? I think it’s changed tremendously,” he said. “Prior to being with NJ Transit I was with the Port Authority Police Department. At Transit, the paradigm changed.”
For example, before Sept. 11, an abandoned backpack was just that, an abandoned backpack destined for the lost and found. But now, it’s a reason for suspicion and care
“We always look at unattended items and ask ‘is it associated with terrorism?’ and approach it with caution and that type of intensity until we can say that it isn’t terrorism.”
Further, Trucillo said the NJ Transit Police Department has grown since 9/11, with more emphasis on special operations.
“We’ve augmented our special operations in a number of ways,” he said. “Our K-9 unit is a very important unit when it comes to counter terrorism given that our enemies have sometimes been shown to use explosives, so we have a large K-9 unit we use in our transportation facilities to be able to identify items and see if we need to go to a higher level.”
Spotswood resident Liz Quattrocchi, who has been commuting to the city for 10 years, mostly on Suburban Transit buses, says she’s noticed this trend at larger stops.
“Only at the Port Authority--baggage checks, and soldiers with guns--and Penn Station--cops with dogs,” she said via email.
With bus and rail stations throughout the state, NJ Transit also works closely with local law enforcement to ensure security. With the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching, Trucillo says partnerships like that, as well as similar relations ships with Federal Air Marshalls, the FBI, State Police and the Transportation Security Administration, play pivotal roles in security.
“Everybody is raising their awareness level in this period entering the anniversary of 9/11,” he said. “We know Al-Qaeda, in the past, has placed an emphasis on anniversaries as being significant, so we want to make sure we’re doing all that we can.”
But it’s not just anniversaries and special partnerships in which NJ Transit relies partly on others. In East Brunswick, where commuters frequently take buses at the Township Transportation Center and the bus station at 1 Tower Boulevard at the Hilton on Route 18, local law enforcement is especially cognizant of the importance of security.
“We have certainly grown more aware of the potential threats to transportation centers and parking garages,” said East Brunswick Deputy Chief William Krause. “Our patrol activities have grown over the years since the 9/11 attacks to address these areas in a more thorough manner. In addition, we recently were issued an Automatic License Plate Reader from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office. This is an invaluable tool that allows the officer in the field to check large numbers of license plates automatically through the system and identify potential problems or threats. One of the reasons we received this equipment was because of the number of malls along Route 18 and the parking decks and transportation centers. This allows us to significantly increase our patrol activities and quickly identify potential threats to ensure the safety of our residents and those that shop in town and use our transportation centers to travel to other locations.”
Elsewhere, NJ Transit also tries to make use of its civilian work force.
“We’re engaging the civilian work force as well to be extra vigilant–conductors, bus drivers, track workers - to help us also by looking for anything they see that makes them uncomfortable and to alert NJ Transit police officers,” said NJ Transit Chief Trucillo.
Trucillo said NJ Transit recently began the Transit Secure program, in which it engages local partners in areas such as Metropark in Edison and invites them in on a patrol of the station.
“It serves three purposes, it lets us get to know the people that are going to respond, it provides enhanced security, and gives people who come and respond a safety briefing. When dealing with any incident in a rail environment is an inherently dangerous environment,” he said.
The new program is just a few weeks ago, but Trucillo hopes to see it grow.
Deputy Chief Krause said that while there is no official program connecting the department and NJ Transit, he is made aware of threats via the Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness and is ready to respond when needed.
“These advisory notices are disseminated to all of our personnel for the appropriate action to be taken. This action usually involves a heightened awareness and increased patrols. Of course, if we are called by NJ Transit for an issue, such as a disruptive person on a bus, we respond immediately and investigate.”