Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Misplaced PR 

It was a quiet morning at the Maplewood, NJ train station yesterday. It usually is in the little suburban town of 20,000. I was waiting on the platform at 6:15 am for the New York express when a procession of police cars, SUVs and black vehicles drove up in a convoy. Out stepped eight troopers in combat gear, flack jackets, dangling gas masks and black nine millimeters strapped to their sides. A raid, I wondered? What for? The policemen said nothing but went to the lead SUV, opened the tailgate and removed black M16 rifles with spotting scopes, then locked and loaded gray ammo magazines into each of them. Another policeman opened a cage in the back of second SUV for a large, barking German Shepherd that he began to walk in the park.

Suddenly, I was nervous. So was everyone else. The woman who runs the concession at the station and the newspaper seller stood at the door and peered at the officers. Finally, I asked one stone-faced policeman what was happening. Was it training exercise? No, he said, it was for real. New Jersey Transit and the State police were using a show of force at various stations because of an elevated alert level for terrorism.

In Maplewood? You've got to be kidding. On the other hand, the engineer for the first World Trade Center bombing was a Maplewood resident.

The policemen spread out along the platform and two in black crossed to the center platform where they stood silently staring at us waiting next to the local tracks. A woman commuter passed me and commented that it smacked of Russia in the 1970s. Few knew what was happening until one policeman handed out yellow "security minder" cards that explained a "yellow" alert level and their and our need for vigilance.

It was absurd, of course. We're commuters. We carry briefcases, bags and backpacks to work every day. A terrorist could have been standing next to me, and I wouldn't know. Moreover, the policemen were not checking backpacks. There was nervous laughter and more commentary among the commuters -- none of it positive. We got on the express train and departed, leaving the unsmiling policemen for commuters coming after us.

I thought about the incident later. It was beyond silly. It was misplaced PR. Yes, New Jersey Transit wants us to know it is taking precautions. I'm grateful for that. Terrorists have an affinity for commuters as we learned in Spain, India and the UK. But, throwing police cordons around commuter stations randomly isn't going to stop anyone -- or even hinder them. It does do one thing, however. It upsets patrons of the transit system, which is the opposite PR message the agency wants to send.

Perhaps I'm a fatalist about terrorist attacks. I believe there will be at least one at some point on some part of the greater Metro New York transit systems. I believe every station in the various systems should have cameras to spot individuals with bad intentions. I don't believe random police "raids" will do anything except cause an individual to wait a day at most.

But cameras cost money and time to install. My guess is the random police presence is someone's idea of demonstrating security on the cheap. It's publicity, not PR.


You're so right but unfortunately we live in a world where people expect some kind of visible show of force when rumors of terrorist attacks raise their ugly heads. Really sad when you consider the implications. When have we caught any terrorists with these macho public displays? As far as I know, everyone caught of late was by undercover activity and more conventional spying. Why do I have this uncomfortable feeling that these shows of force only enrich the police with more overtime and bigger pensions while the rest of us suffer unrewarding discomfort, anxiety and fear? PR has its downside and none so much as when politicians use it to push the perception of safety as safety itself.
I think that these random intimidation of police untis in commuter stations add to the growing sense of panic that commuters feel evrytime they commute to and from work. The police and the feds should focus more on intel gathering than acting like brutish security guards.

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