LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Transit police agencies push back against funding cuts

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

They patrol local train stations and bus terminals responding to accidents like the Hoboken train crash, managing emergencies like Amtrak derailments, and trying to prevent terror attacks, like the pipe bombs planted near Elizabeth’s train station. But transit security agencies on Tuesday told a congressional subcommittee it needs more money to keep people safe, even as the president’s proposed budget slashes national security grants nearly in half, from $88 million to $48 million.

“If the situation and the intelligence dictates that somebody needs to be there, they need to be there. The grant funding gives us that ability to put that officer there. Without that grant funding, we’re putting people in harms way, I believe,” said Christopher Trucillo, the chief of NJ Transit Police.

Gathered at Trenton City Hall, officials from NJ Transit, the state police and other interstate transit agencies testified about the need for integrated digital surveillance systems. One told subcommittee members, even though PATCO mounted more than 700 cameras on trains and bridges in South Jersey, there was still no integration.

“Integration? They’re not integrated. What’s the sense of having those cameras? Who can monitor that many?” said Director of Homeland Security & Emergency Management at the Delaware River Port Authority, Charles Cunningham.

“The state of New Jersey lacks digital technologies and personnel to support planning and operational phases in providing consistent real time interagency communications,” said Lt. Douglas Lemanowicz, a member of the special operations team of the NJ State Police.

“I don’t think anybody at this table is going to say this technology isn’t one of the biggest pieces for securing mass transit, it truly is … We all need this technology. It’s expensive. None of us can afford it …,” said Chief Thomas Nestel of the SEPTA Transit Police.

Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, ranking member of the Transportation Security and Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee, announced she’s introducing a bill to authorize $400 million in transit security grants, but also increase the number of special K-9 bomb sniffing teams, review whether people should carry guns into public transit areas and advise transit agencies about the best ways to prevent vehicle-based terrorism against soft targets, like the Halloween truck attack in New York.

“So, it doesn’t make any sense that this administration would be reducing the grants as well as other funding in this area in this environment,” said Watson Coleman.

But subcommittee members got the most surprising answer when they asked, “Beyond the funding constraints, what is it that’s frustrating when you’re out doing your job every day? What’s holding you back, beyond the resource issue?”

“We see a very high level of homelessness, drug addiction, mental issues. And we cannot that say our primary mission is counter-terrorism, therefore we’re not going to deal with these issues. We have to deal with those issues,” said Trucillo.

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Members of the subcommittee called public safety a bipartisan issue, but finding the money to restore these funding cuts could become a very contentious issue in this budget cycle.