AirTrain security questioned

February 4, 2009 6:12:42 PM PST
An Investigators exclusive on a glaring lapse in security at JFK Airport. The eight-mile long AirTrain that carries more than 18-million travelers a year to JFK terminals is often unguarded.

The Port Authority's own internal reports call for round-the-clock patrols of the popular AirTrain.

Yet our investigation has found police coverage on the un-manned system is far below the authorities own staffing recommendations, even at times non-existent.

Our photographers spent hours during three different days riding the 8-mile long AirTrain to JFK. As it went from one terminal to the other, we noticed there were no Port Authority police officers on-board even though the automated train carries 50-thousand passengers a day.

No police on-board even though the Port Authority's own primary security assessment of the AirTrain called it "an inviting target." The report clearly states the Port Authority "would be well advised to use police officers on board the trains." The report recommends no fewer than 6 officers per shift.

"They are nowhere near that number," Paul Nunziato, vice president of the Port Authority's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said. "You're lucky if there are two officers on the train a day, and if there are, they are not on for the whole 8 hour tour."

Our investigation has found the Port Authority repeatedly ignores its own staffing recommendations. Day-after-day, shift-after-shift, the daily police roll call assignments show the AirTrain's patrol posts are marked N-C for "no coverage." Twenty-three days of roll calls show that nearly 60-percent of the time, the AirTrain had no police coverage.

"I'm just surprised that they would put such a low priority on something that is a fairly high risk," security expert Joseph King said.

King spent 33 years as a supervisory special agent for U.S. Customs at JFK.

"It appears from the logs that it's either terrible management or it was a conscious effort not to protect the AirTrain because it was considered a low priority," he said.

The Port Authority says low crime stats prove the AirTrain is safe. In the past two-and-a-half -years, only 57 crimes were reported, many minor offenses.

It's boots on the ground. It's visibility that's a deterrent. Yet we see again and again, shift after shift there's no coverage assigned to the air train?

"When you look at what we've accomplished, the number of arrests reported to us, they don't rise to the level of major crime," Port Authority police superintendent Samuel Plumeri Jr. said.

The Port Authority says it has an emergency services unit that can respond quickly to any incident on the AirTrain. It touts its heavy reliance on surveillance cameras for security, noting it has tripled the number of cameras since the train opened.

While there are hundreds of surveillance cameras to keep an eye on the AirTrain stations, we've been able to confirm there are no cameras on board the actual cars where the passengers ride. That's something the head of the Port Authority police didn't want to talk about.

"I won't talk about what we do, never have, not my policy to," Plumeri said. "The investment that the agency has made in surveillance equipment that can fix to pan our facilities, I feel good about that."

Some critics say the Port Authority is making the same mistakes that led to the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. A jury found the Port Authority negligent in the bombing in part because it ignored the warnings of its own security report that raised the possibility of a terrorist attack in the underground garage.

The agency's security report on the AirTrain sounds a similar warning stating that, "the high profile of New York City and Kennedy Airport combine to make AirTrain a desirable target or a mechanism for a terrorist act." Yet our investigation has found often times there's no police coverage on the train.

"After the 93 bombing they had a study not to let trucks into the World Trade Center. They ignored that report as well and it looks like they are ignoring this too," Nunziato said.

The Port Authority calls the AirTrain security report out-dated and insists that police assigned to other parts of JFK can patrol the AirTrain.

Sources inside Port Authority police tell us that random bag searches on the AirTrain have stopped because of cutbacks in patrols.

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