Los Angeles’s transit agency will become the first in the nation to deploy a network of body scanners to screen passengers, an effort to thwart terrorist attacks in rail and subway stations as the federal government seeks to expand security screenings beyond airports.
For more than a year, the Transportation Security Administration has partnered with large transit systems nationwide, from San Francisco to New York, to help test and vet scanners that can detect hidden explosives and weapons on people in a crowd of passengers.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced it would be the first to fully commit to them across its system, saying they will be used starting this year to screen riders without revealing their anatomy and without forcing them to line up or stop walking.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, billions were spent to tighten airport security. Passengers were subjected to extensive screenings, biometric scans, ID checks and limitations on what can be taken on flights. But the same protections have not been extended to transit hubs, where the only check is typically for a ticket.
As law enforcement officials continue to sound the alarm about vulnerabilities in other modes of transportation, the deployment of body scanners in Los Angeles would represent the first expansion of airportlike security to mass transit in the United States.
In the New York area, two transit agencies have been testing similar scanners in stations in recent months, including on Wednesday at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, where a man detonated a faulty pipe bomb in December.
While the technology could rekindle the yearslong debate over security versus personal privacy, passengers at the bus station said they would welcome the devices.
Carole Fell, who was waiting on Wednesday to ride a Greyhound bus to Atlantic City to visit friends, said she was more annoyed with the slow lines to board than she would be with body scanners.
“Any surveillance we can get these days is better than none,” said Ms. Fell, 72, who lives on the Upper East Side. “There’s a lot of cuckoo people around and maybe they can ward off something.”
Officials in Los Angeles cautioned on Tuesday that riders need not worry about the technology. It will not result in the sort of security nightmare common at airports or even sporting events, they said. The portable screening devices will “quickly and unobtrusively” screen people, detecting suspicious items from 30 feet away and scanning more than 2,000 passengers per hour, they said.
“We’re looking specifically for weapons that have the ability to cause a mass casualty event,” Alex Wiggins, the chief security and law enforcement officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said Tuesday. “We’re looking for explosive vests, we’re looking for assault rifles. We’re not necessarily looking for smaller weapons that don’t have the ability to inflict mass casualties.”
The federal government has been studying the technology for nearly 15 years, and the T.S.A. has been testing versions of it at some of the nation’s busiest hubs, including New York’s Penn Station, Washington’s Union Station and at New Jersey Transit stations.
In Los Angeles, the devices themselves resemble the sort of black laminate cases that musicians lug around on tour, not upright metal detectors. The machines, which are on wheels and cost about $100,000 each, can be pointed in the direction of riders as they come down an escalator or into a station.
They use technology that examines the naturally occurring waves produced by a person’s body. The technology, manufactured by Thruvision, does not emit radiation, officials added.
“Most people won’t even know they’re being scanned, so there’s no risk of them missing their train service on a daily basis,” Dave Sotero, a spokesman for the L.A. Metro, said.
Mr. Sotero said officials had examined scanners that patrons would have to walk through, but had opted against them. He declined to specify how many devices were purchased. The transit agency about doubled the number of law enforcement personnel deployed on the system, he said.
Still, passengers are far more likely to be victims of personal crime, such as being robbed or groped, than to be the victim of a terrorist attack, said Brian D. Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A successful security system would help passengers feel safe from those more common crimes without interfering with their commutes, he said.
“If people find they are being pulled aside and they sigh and roll their eyes and are delayed,” he said, it could make people less likely to use the rail system.
Even though officials have said the technology would be unobtrusive, Mr. Taylor questioned whether employees would still have to stop and question people who are flagged as having a suspicious item — possibly for a false alarm.
“Someone has to intervene, stop that person and check out what’s going on,” Mr. Taylor said. “That causes delay, and it also causes a sense of invasiveness among the passengers.”
Los Angeles County’s metro system has one of the largest riderships in the United States, with 93 rail stations and 170 bus routes — and it is set to expand. Mr. Sotero said the new scanning units would be mostly deployed at random stations, but would certainly be used at major transit hubs and in places where large crowds are expected for marches, races and other events.
“There won’t be a deployment pattern that will be predictable,” he said. “They will go where they’re needed.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, two types of scanners were tested in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a major hub for bus and subway riders in Midtown Manhattan. Shortly after the morning rush on Wednesday, several riders in the bus terminal said they would welcome the body scanners and did not consider them a privacy concern.
“There’s a lot of people here and it’s good for our safety,” said Amanda Agostino, 22, an au pair in New Jersey, who was waiting for a bus to Philadelphia.
Brad Allard, who was visiting from England, said he could see the technology being deployed in his home country. Suicide bombers linked to Al Qaeda killed 52 people and injured hundreds of others in an attack on a London bus and three subway trains on July 7, 2005.
“Obviously, safety is a priority,” said Mr. Allard, 21, who is studying police sciences.
In December, an attempted suicide bombing in New York ended when a man detonated a faulty pipe bomb in a corridor connecting the Times Square and Port Authority subway stations during the morning commute. The suspect, a 27-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh, was the only person seriously injured, but the blast shook a city that only weeks before had seen eight people killed in a truck attack.
Juan Machado, 29, who uses the Metro rail system frequently to get around Los Angeles, said that while he’s not sure exactly how the scanning system would work, the idea of being screened concerns him.
“Going through T.S.A. at the airport, I think about how many times they pull a bag from the conveyor belt and ask to take a look at it,” he said. “A lot of things might look suspicious when you’re X-raying them from a distance.”
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