Port security gaps pose threat

Police say they are often short-handed, cite other vulnerabilities

Special Report

July 10, 2005|By Michael Dresser and Greg Barrett | Michael Dresser and Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

The port of Baltimore - the nation's eighth-largest - suffers from significant security shortcomings, including gaps in fences, unattended gates, alarms and camera systems that don't work or exist, and insufficient police patrols on land and sea, according to interviews with port police officers, eyewitness inspections and state documents.

What appear to be a pair of video cameras guarding one important marine terminal are actually blocks of wood on poles, while the state-of-the-art fiber-optic alarm system on the perimeter fence regularly malfunctions and is usually turned off, port police officers say. Inside the sprawling 1,100-acre port, only a handful of police may be on duty on some shifts, and two boats that monitor the port's 45 miles of shoreline have been routinely anchored for all but a few hours a day because of manpower shortages, officers say.

Senior state officials who oversee the port acknowledge some security vulnerabilities and say they are working hard to overcome them by drawing on $15.6 million in state and federal grants to add video surveillance, upgraded lighting and other security improvements at the port's eight public terminals, seven in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and one in Anne Arundel County.

"It is our intent to have it surveilled to the extent that we wish it very soon," said F. Brooks Royster III, who took over as port director June 1. Royster said he had been unaware of the mock cameras, which remained in place Friday - two weeks after they were called to state officials' attention. He defended their use, saying he'd "rather have someone sweating whether they're real or not."

Thursday's coordinated attack on London transit systems - nearly four years after terrorist strikes on the United States - underscores the need for heightened vigilance at high-profile but difficult-to-defend targets such as the port of Baltimore. The port handles about 2,000 ships a year, carrying about 31 million tons of cargo annually. Some of the shipments - toxic chemicals and uranium compounds - require enhanced security.

The London attack prompted port officials to ratchet up the number of boat patrols and add more police officers as emergency measures. But officers who regularly patrol the port say they are usually short-handed and that much more needs to be done to shore up the security infrastructure.

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out - land-side or water-side - how to get into this port," said one of several port police officers who spoke to The Sun. The officers, members of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said they spoke out because their internal complaints about poor security had been ignored by higher-ranking officials.

The port needs to "realize its mistakes and come up with some countermeasures to prevent something from happening," said an officer. "Would you rather have egg on your face now or blood on your hands later?"

The port's public terminals are operated by the Maryland Port Administration, part of the state Department of Transportation, which also oversees the port police. But the Coast Guard, as the lead agency in charge of port security nationwide, devises and enforces the port's security plan. Local police agencies also play a role in guarding the port.

Compared with four years ago, the port is "much more secure than it was before 9/11," asserted James F. Ports Jr., Maryland's deputy secretary of transportation.

"Are we 100 percent there? I would say no," said Cmdr. Jonathan Burton, deputy commander of the Baltimore sector of the Coast Guard. "I'm not sure we know what 100 percent is. We're certainly much further down the road than we were at 9/11."

Security challenges like those the port faces are widespread.

`A major concern'

"Ports and associated waterways are particularly vulnerable because of their size, accessibility and the many sites and facilities that could be targeted," said a report last year by the Government Accountability Office, calling the situation "a major concern."

A study completed this year by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security identified 66 of the nation's 359 ports as especially susceptible to terrorist attack. Baltimore, which ranks eighth in cargo value and 18th in tonnage, is one of those 66 ports, but others are rated more vulnerable, according to a law-enforcement source who has seen the study.

Gary McLhinney, chief of the Transportation Authority Police, said port police officers who registered complaints might not be aware of the extent to which the port cooperates with other agencies. "We are just a small component of security in the port of Baltimore," he said.

McLhinney criticized the officers who anonymously voiced complaints about the port, including staffing, saying that if they had raised their concerns within the chain of command, they would have been heard. "You've got to question their motives," he said.

The officers said they spoke to The Sun anonymously for fear of retribution.

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