Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, right, spoke with Barry Skolnick, a member of Community Board 1. Below, Kelly watches the N.Y.P.D.’s PowerPoint presentation to C.B. 1.
Kelly speaks frankly about the threats to his Downtown neighbors
By Julie Shapiro
As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly spoke to Lower Manhattan residents and Community Board 1 members Tuesday night, the room was silent.
No one stirred in the crowd scattered across the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s auditorium, and latecomers found seats without smiling or whispering hello to their neighbors.
Since 9/11, Downtown residents have often criticized the restrictive security measures around Police Plaza, City Hall Park and the New York Stock Exchange, but Tuesday the audience appeared sobered by the presentation.
The rapt audience looked up at the stage and listened to Kelly and Counterterrorism Deputy Commissioner Richard Falkenrath describe the deadly risks facing Lower Manhattan and the N.Y.P.D.’s extensive efforts to protect the neighborhood.
“The area, I don’t have to tell you, has been attacked twice successfully,” Kelly said, “and we’ve had six plots against New York City since Sept. 11.”
“We think that Lower Manhattan is uniquely threatened,” Falkenrath added. “It has a special place in al-Qaeda’s mindset and will ever remain so…. This area faces a special threat and needs a special response.”
Tuesday marked the first time a city police commissioner has addressed C.B. 1. Kelly said it was important to answer the community’s questions on security measures that will affect their daily lives — and he should know, because he is a resident himself. Kelly has lived in Battery Park City for 18 years.
Residents asked Kelly how the N.Y.P.D. will keep Lower Manhattan safe and how the city will mitigate unintended side effects like traffic backups.
But first, the community listened as Kelly and Falkenrath described what is in store for Lower Manhattan. The presentation focused on preventing car bomb attacks at the rebuilt World Trade Center, which is “the sort of place you have to assume will be targeted in the future,” Falkenrath said.
The N.Y.P.D. will monitor W.T.C. security from an operations control center on site. The N.Y.P.D. will screen all traffic that flows through the site and will divide Church St. in half with bollards, the east side open and the west side secured. Vehicles will enter on Liberty St. to the belowground Vehicle Screening Center, where police will check them. Residents and workers will apply for trusted access clearance to speed the screening process.
The Vehicle Screening Center is a particularly sensitive area, because the columns that hold up the office towers are open and exposed there, Falkenrath said.
In response to that sensitivity, several residents suggested screening the many expected tour buses elsewhere. Sally Regenhard, whose son was killed on 9/11, suggested the buses park in New Jersey and tourists ride the PATH to the Trade Center.
“No one is locked into the concept of having buses go into the garage,” Kelly replied. “That issue is an open one.”
Jeff Galloway, a C.B. 1 member, pointed out that the Environmental Impact Statement for the W.T.C. site assumed that all the streets would be open to general traffic, and he asked if the public would have a chance weigh in on a revised E.I.S. given the street closures. Kelly said he was not certain, but he works closely with the city Department of Transportation on future traffic plans.
One group that will benefit from the restricted streets is pedestrians, Falkenrath said, because there will be fewer cars on the site.
The PATH system is another concern. It is a transportation anomaly in that N.Y.P.D. officers are not allowed aboard the system. The N.Y.P.D. assists with security on other train systems, from Metro-North Railroad to New Jersey Transit, but the Port Authority Police handle the PATH trains themselves.
Catherine McVay Hughes, a C.B. 1 member, told Kelly she would feel safer if the N.Y.P.D. had more jurisdiction over PATH trains. The PATH pulls directly into the World Trade Center, and it was the target of a foiled 2006 plot by an al-Qaeda-related group.
Kelly replied that the N.Y.P.D. was discussing taking a larger role on the PATH system.
The N.Y.P.D. has much more jurisdiction over the subway, which Falkenrath said is “a terribly difficult target to defend.” In addition to having a general officer presence on New York’s subway — the largest subway system in North America — the N.Y.P.D. also does random bag checks and checks people for traces of explosives.
Many of the N.Y.P.D.’s methods are geared toward a knowledge of how al-Qaeda works. The terrorists spend months watching their potential targets, noting details and planning their approach.
“We do the same thing in reverse,” Falkenrath said.
The N.Y.P.D. sends dozens of police cars to sensitive locations at all hours of the day and night, showing flexibility and quick response times designed to throw the terrorists off.
Another N.Y.P.D. program is the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, a net of surveillance often likened to London’s Ring of Steel. By 2011, the N.Y.P.D. will have 3,000 cameras monitoring public spaces below Canal St. About 150 of those cameras are already up and running, feeding information to a 24/7 coordination center the N.Y.P.D. opened on lower Broadway last week. More than 30 officers are assigned to the center so far.
The center is also monitoring license plates, handling more than 1,000 plates a day. The center will eventually monitor radiation detectors placed around Lower Manhattan and many of the city’s bridges and tunnels. All the center’s information is integrated on a high-resolution digital map.
“There is frankly nothing like it in the world,” Falkenrath said.
The N.Y.P.D. also defends the city against two unlikely but potentially devastating attacks: nuclear and biological weapons. There are more radiological sensors around New York City than anywhere in the world, and more are coming, Kelly said. Air samplers all around the city constantly test for early indications of a biological attack.
At Tuesday’s meeting, several people asked about how the N.Y.P.D. coordinates with federal authorities, after recent news reports that the federal government was not giving the N.Y.P.D. the surveillance clearance N.Y.P.D. requested.
“We’re not like other places,” Kelly said. “We want them to think of us differently.”
He said coordination with state and federal governments “has never been better.”
During the question-and-answer session, several community members mentioned buildings that they think face security risks, from telecom hotels to the post office at 90 Church St. Kelly promised to look into them.
Kelly and the residents kept the tone formal for most of the meeting, but occasionally they slipped into a more causal tone belonging to friendly neighbors — which, after all, many of them are.
Linda Belfer, a C.B. 1 member and Gateway Plaza resident, told Kelly she finds it very disconcerting when swarms of police cars gather near the World Financial Center on drills, their lights flashing.
“My heart clutches when I see that,” she said.
Kelly started to reassure her, but time was running short.
“I’ll see you in the elevator,” he said. “We’ll talk about it.”