TSA Leaves Big Footprint with TRAX

Most of my memories of Utah are fond and enjoyable; others are not so good. My first brush with security came years ago in the old ZCMI department store. A pickpocket took all of my disposable income, and I thought my life as a paperboy had come to a screeching halt.

The thief got $20 and a nearly new billfold. After a little consoling from my parents, I learned that it isn’t the place -- criminals are everywhere.

I still like Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front area. Though I live in Dallas now, I still read the local news with interest and an article in the newspaper recently caught my eye. In early August, the Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner began service from Salt Lake City to Ogden, a 44-mile commuter rail along the metro area.

It didn’t take long before law enforcement got involved.

On Aug. 6, as the FrontRunner arrived at the station in Farmington, commuters were greeted by a heavy police presence at the train station. It was all part of a new Department of Homeland Security initiative called the Visual Intermodal Presence and Response to focus on surface transportation security, which includes commuter trains and buses.

According to local Transportation Security Administration director Earl Morris, the methodology is random and unpredictable. He said on any given day his officers could show a strong presence. On other days they won’t be seen, but they are supposedly there. Morris’ officers also include federal air marshals, as well as local police, who patrol along the rail platforms. Plainclothes officers blend in with commuters on trains. What is in Salt Lake City that terrorists would find especially inviting? Utah boasts the greatest snow on earth, but I doubt that’s an issue. There is Hill Air Force Base, but it is secure with perimeter guards and checkpoints.

“We don’t divulge specifically what we’re looking for,” Morris said in an interview with a local daily newspaper. “There is a difference between a person who is late for a train and people who are nervous because they’ve been involved in criminal activity.”

Since Morris is talking about commuters, or potential criminals using FrontRunner, some of the comments registered by commuters sound much like what you and I would think. One reader of a local daily newspaper wrote, “Sadly, many Americans will find their presense (sic) reassuring. Comforted in knowing that Big Brother is there to take care of them.”

Another commuter rider said, “What a joke. They were all standing around chatting with each other or trying to look ‘bigger and badder’ than the agency next to them. It would be much better to actually do some good.” Another commuter had this to say: “I wasn’t worried about safety on the train before. I’m worried now, though. This could become as much of a security-theater boondoggle as the one at the airport.”

OK, I haven’t been to Salt Lake City in a while, but could it have changed that much? Is the Wasatch Front a terrorists’ haven? Are there threats of specific interest? Morris said there have been no threats against mass transit, but he also said vigilance is needed after the recent commuter train bombings in Madrid and London. Last time I checked, Madrid and London were halfway around the world. I don’t remember metro commuter lines taking additional precautions in 1995 after a bombing in the Paris subway. I do remember being in Paris a couple months after that bombing -- and while there were police and military riding some of the trains, there wasn’t an overbearing presence. In fact, one policeman and two armed military men were happy to let me take their photograph.

The French took the bombing seriously because it was the eighth in a series of attempts since July 1995. Police called them an act of terrorism. The one thing they didn’t do was stand around enmasse. Morris acknowledged that there are limited resources, and a cooperative effort between federal, state and local law enforcement should be maintained on commuter trains. Surface transportation is a huge part of doing business every day, and, he said, there are a lot of people riding mass transit systems.

The bottom line for TSA is to be proactive and prevent problems from developing. Morris said people can expect to see more of this kind of policing. Aviation security remains the top priority for TSA, but apparently with flights being cut or scaled back, officials now have more time to devote to commuter rail systems to “prevent any kind of harm ... from the catastrophic to the mundane.”

I’m not sure if this qualifies as paranoia, but it appears the irregular, sporadic show of law enforcement is meant to tell the bad guys -- whether they are terrorists or common criminals -- that they can never be sure which day crime won’t pay for them. While it sounds a lot like overkill on the part of law enforcement, they have a mission and it appears they are taking it seriously.

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