Here's an inside look at the NYPD's transit terror-fighting unit
A team of 104 NYPD officers is the city's first line of defense when it comes to terror threats on the subway.
The NYPD transit bureau's anti-terrorism unit is focused on uncovering threats and thwarting attacks on the subway, which has been under tight security in the 11 years since 9/11.
Whether on foot or scooters, officers in the unit search the MTA's busiest stations, largely during the morning and evening rush hours, for suspicious people and packages.
"Our main focus is the prevention of terrorism within the transit system," said Lt. Jose Medina, a 16-year police veteran who has been with the unit for more than two years. "It's an enormous responsibility, obviously, because we have millions of people who travel through the subway system."
The unit, which started patrolling in 2010 with funding from federal stimulus money, also pitches in on Metro-North.
Though officials wouldn't say how many cases the unit has handled, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has said there have been at least 14 terror plots thwarted citywide since 9/11, including some targeting the subway.
"Thank god . . . we haven't had any major happenings within the subway system," Medina, 44, said.
Before you swipe
Riders are accustomed to seeing teams of cops at station entrances, randomly selecting people with bags to see if they're carrying anything that's illegal to bring into the system. Don't try to slip away if you've got a bag, said Capt. Roberto Cruz. There are always at least two undercover cops watching for anyone trying to avoid police.
Cruz said the team tries to vary when and where it does bag checks, or "surges" of officers at stations, though his unit mostly focuses on the MTA's busiest and most iconic stops, including Herald Square, Times Square and Grand Central Terminal.
"We try to be unpredictable," said Cruz, a 36-year-old former Marine who has been an Air Force reservist since 2009. "It's mostly a show of force to reassure the public that we're out here doing something."
Beyond the turnstiles
Inside the turnstiles, some officers drive electric scooters that raise them a few feet above most riders' heads.
"People can see you from far," said Officer Marlon Minaya, adding that being able to move up to 12 mph helps him reach incidents quicker.
All the officers also carry radiation detectors.
On the trains
On a recent Tuesday morning, a sergeant and eight officers lined up outside the doors of each No. 2/3 subway car entering the 42nd Street-Times Square station, and quickly inspected the cars before giving the train's conductor an "all clear." The drill would be repeated dozens of times over the 81/2 hour shift. In a similar operation, officers ride a train and step out at each station.
Sgt. Marc Richardson, who joined the unit at its inception in 2009 after five years as a cop in Jamaica, said the different environment brought challenges.
"You could have a subway slashing in a closed subway full of people. That's very difficult to handle," said Richardson, adding that at times he patrols solo, unlike some officers above ground, who drive around with a partner. "Our backup may be two, three, four stations away."
Another task is to distinguish between visitors snapping photos of subway tunnels and would-be terrorists.
"You could be a tourist, but maybe you're not," said Richardson, 45. "If you're not, I don't know that, but you know I'm looking at you."
Behind the scenes
Though police get called to inspect about 10 unattended packages each day, "most of it is garbage," Richardson said. "Some of it is people's property. They walk off, they forget they left it there on the bench and another person sees it and calls it in."
And every day, officers inspect dozens of underground emergency exits that lead from subway tunnels up to the street. The cops climb down as many as 20 stories to make sure nobody has snuck onto the tracks.
"You have to be in good shape if you're going to be in this unit," said Medina, after emerging from an exit near the United Nations, where the No. 7 train enters Manhattan. "You probably lost a few pounds walking up those steps."
MTA chief Joe Lhota praised the team's work.
Said Lhota: "Protecting the subway system from all threats is one of the toughest jobs in New York, but the NYPD Transit Bureau's counterterrorism tactics, training and skill give me confidence that more than 5 million riders each day are safe and secure."