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November 15, 2005
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NY police test explosives detectors in subway

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK- Police have introduced a new anti-terrorism tool designed to thwart potential subway bombers while reducing the intrusiveness of random bag searches: explosives detectors.

The portable detection devices, tested at two subway stops during Monday evening's rush hour, are designed to chemically analyze swabs taken from the outside of bags for traces of explosives, police said.

"This gives us an instant response," police spokesman Walter Burnes said. "It's faster than a bag search and less intrusive."

Commuters, who have experienced random bag searches since shortly after the July terrorist attacks in London, seemed to agree. Some of those searches have involved dumping the bags' contents onto tables for thorough inspections.

At one entrance of Grand Central Terminal, in midtown Manhattan, police officers and members of the anti-terrorism unit randomly stopped commuters, with rush hour peaking, to swab their bags. Most of those stopped were sent on their way within about 30 seconds after their swabs came up negative.

"That made me feel safer," said Grace Spivey, a vice president at an investment bank who was among those stopped. "I wish they would do this more often and at more locations."

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the city to stop the random bag searches, expressed guarded optimism that the new explosives technology would reduce intrusiveness.

"A swab on the outside of a bag is far less invasive than rifling through the personal belongings," NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said. "We don't yet have enough information about whether this is an effective security measure that does the least possible harm to personal privacy."

At the checkpoint, police tested as least three types of explosives detection devices: Two were handheld models about the size of a small vacuum cleaner, and the third looked like a large fax machine with a screen showing the results of the chemical analyses.

"We're trying to figure out what works best," Burnes said.

The police department said it paid between $25,000 and $50,000 for each detector. An estimated 4.5 million passengers ride the New York subway on a weekday.

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