Profiling Fears Surface in Subway

Times Staff Writer

As subway riders poured into Pennsylvania Station, a police officer stopped Ahmed Mohammed and asked him to open his backpack. The Pakistani-born engineer, who was visiting New York with his family, shrugged and agreed to the search.

He looked embarrassed as the officer quickly examined its contents -- T-shirts and presents purchased at Macy’s -- and waved him through the turnstile. Heading for the rush-hour train, Mohammed was angry.

“We all want to feel safe after what happened in London,” the 29-year-old tourist said last week. “And police have to do their job. But they picked me out of the crowd just because of the way I look. Not because of anything I have done.”

When police began screening subway riders two weeks ago, many New Yorkers accepted it as necessary. During the first few days, hundreds of commuters came up to officers and opened their bags for inspection, prompting reminders from top brass that the searches had to be done randomly.


Law enforcement has stressed that the policy is not targeting any particular group. But passenger complaints such as Mohammed’s are becoming more frequent, and critics more vocal.

Some call the searches an unacceptable intrusion into personal freedom. Others believe the police should be allowed to openly focus on Muslim commuters.

“It may take you a little longer to get where you’re going,” said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who announced the program July 21, hours after the attempted subway bombings in London. “But we’re going to make sure you get there safely.”

Acknowledging that the searches would be intrusive, Bloomberg said: “We live in a world, sadly, where these kinds of security measures are necessary.”

New York, home to the nation’s largest mass-transit system, is the only big city to adopt such a program. Teams of officers set up tables in front of subway turnstiles, near signs announcing that backpacks are subject to inspection.

If riders do not wish to be searched, they are free to leave the station.

Guidelines call for police to search the bags of every 10th person getting onto the subway; the officers are legally barred from singling out people based on race, religion or ethnicity.

Thousands of people have been screened, and there have been no arrests. The program will continue indefinitely, said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.


“I don’t have a problem if they want to look into my bag,” said Jeannie Wong, who was asked to hand over her purse at Pennsylvania Station as hundreds of commuters rushed by. “What they’re doing is OK.”

But on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, home to one of New York City’s largest Muslim populations, there is a wariness that police may wind up engaging in profiling.

“I ride the subway every day, and this has never happened to me,” said Ahmed Larby, who owns an herbal shop on the street dotted with Middle Eastern groceries, bookshops, clothing boutiques, spice dealers and restaurants.

“In this neighborhood we support all they do to fight terrorism,” he added. “But if they single out Muslims just because of who we are, that would be unfair to us all.”


Elsewhere, people expressed similar concerns. As he approached the same checkpoint in Manhattan where Mohammed had been stopped, Sheldon Joseph, an African American college student from Brooklyn, also was asked to open his backpack.

The officer found textbooks and “a report listing my very good grades,” Joseph said proudly. “But it’s hard not to feel bad about this. Why did they pick me?”

Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding that the city halt its subway searches. A court hearing on the issue is scheduled for Wednesday.

“This program is unprecedented, unproductive and unconstitutional,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU chief executive director. She spoke at a Manhattan news conference with five plaintiffs who alleged that their rights had been violated by subway searches.


“Thousands of innocent New Yorkers are now required to allow police to rifle through their personal belongings, like birth control pills, cigarettes, diaries and other items,” she said. “And none of them are suspected of doing anything wrong.”

The fact that people can leave the subway if they don’t want to submit to a search shows that the program “is hardly a deterrent to terrorism,” Lieberman said. “We believe the police have a profound obligation to protect the subways. But it defies logic to think these suspicion-less searches can meet that goal in any way.”

During a recent 30-minute stretch at Pennsylvania Station, police inspected the bags of elderly white men and women, middle-age Asians, white and black teenagers, and three men who later identified themselves as Muslims.

Some critics say the diversity of commuters searched is a nod toward political correctness that ignores the reality of terrorism. They note that most of the people carrying out terrorist attacks are Muslim, and believe police should be focusing on such groups more exclusively.


New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) held up photos of Muslim men at a news conference last week and said: “The individuals involved [in terrorism] basically look like this. Why must police think twice before examining people of a particular group?”

Hikind said he planned to introduce legislation that would allow police to focus on Muslims in subway searches. He was joined by Republican City Councilman James Oddo of Staten Island, who promised to introduce a similar bill.

“There is a particular group who engages in these [terrorism] activities,” Oddo told New York 1, a cable television news station. “They’re not skinny balding Italian Americans from Staten Island.”

As the New York debate gets more heated, tension grows.


When nine council members gathered last week to denounce racial profiling, Democrat Charles Barron, representing a largely black constituency in Brooklyn, noted that the police profile of a “typical” New York drug dealer is a 22-year-old white male.

“I’m certain he [Oddo] doesn’t want us to go to Staten Island and check out all of the 22-year-old white men there for drugs,” Barron said. “We want the same kind of justice to be observed whenever police start searching people on the subway.”