Lower Manhattan security initiative launched

November 18, 2008 4:15:22 PM PST
The setting could pass for a high-tech trading floor: Men in dark suits sitting at tiered banks of desks, studying a steady stream of video and data on floor-to-ceiling monitors. But the front doors to the 28th floor office near Wall Street are unmarked, and the men aren't fixated on stock market fluctuations. The stakes in their line of business, they say, are much higher.

The tenants - counterterrorism officers with the New York Police Department - have transformed the space into the new nerve center for an ambitious plan to protect lower Manhattan from terrorist threats. The center quietly began operating for the first time earlier this month - the first phase of a $100 million initiative sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The program was modeled in part after the "ring of steel" surveillance measures in London's financial district. But police officials here say it will exceed that effort in scope and sophistication.

"I believe we'll have the safest business district in the world," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said during a recent visit to the command center, located in an office tower typically home to brokerage, research and insurance firms.

The initiative will rely largely on 3,000 closed-circuit security cameras carpeting the roughly 1.7 square miles south of Canal Street. So far, about 150 cameras are in place, with another 250 coming on line by the end of the year and the rest by 2011.

The 33 officers assigned to the center already have started monitoring the live feeds round-the-clock. As the volume of images increases, the NYPD hopes to incorporate "smart surveillance" software programmed to automatically detect signs of trouble - an unattended bag, an unauthorized vehicle - and emit an alarm.

On the street, 30 police cars with two roof-mounted cameras have begun reading license plates of passing and parked cars; another 96 stationary readers will be installed under the plan. Computers compare the scanned plate numbers to a database of stolen and suspicious cars, while interactive maps help officers pinpoint their locations and track their movements.

The command center eventually will also receive data from devices designed to detect any radiological and biological threats posed by cars and trucks crossing Canal Street or entering the 16 bridges and four tunnels serving Manhattan. About a million vehicles drive onto the island every day.

Police say they picked the downtown location so that private security officials would have ready access. They don't consider the high floor to be a bigger potential target or safety concern than any other location, and say that if the site ever were knocked out in an attack, other command centers around the city could duplicate its capabilities.

At a recent briefing for private security officials, an NYPD counterterrorism commander, Deputy Inspector John Nicholson, said the department will for the first time share security duties at the World Trade Center as construction is completed on new office buildings, a Sept. 11 memorial and museum and other structures. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns ground zero, had previously policed the site by itself.

The NYPD is forming a trade center unit with 630 officers to meet "a unique and difficult security challenge," Nicholson said.

Woes on Wall Street haven't decreased the need for serious manpower or vigilance, the police commissioner said.

The city's financial center "has always been a desirable target for terrorists," Kelly said. "We don't see the threat declining as the result of the economic downturn."

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