Legislator sets hearing on Md. lapses

`Need to halt culture of carelessness,' he says

Special Report -- A Sun Follow-up: Port Security

July 12, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The chairman of a key legislative panel said yesterday that he will conduct a hearing into security shortcomings at the port of Baltimore, while a top Maryland transportation official said the state would tighten some procedures at the terminals it owns.

Del. Peter Franchot, who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees transportation spending, said he was prompted to schedule the Sept. 13 hearing after a report in The Sun on Sunday outlined a number of security lapses at the port's state-owned marine terminals.

The article focused on such issues as dilapidated fences, malfunctioning or nonexistent alarm and video systems, and assertions by port police officers that they were short-handed. At times, officers said, only a handful were patrolling the 1,100-acre port, with its 45 miles of shoreline.

Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he wants to ask state officials how millions of dollars in appropriations for port security are being used.

"We want to know what that money's being used for and why we have a bunch of duck decoy cameras around the port," he said. "They need to halt the culture of carelessness that allows this kind of security."

Franchot was referring to the article and an accompanying photograph showing that some cameras at one of Baltimore's marine terminals were actually wooden replicas.

Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. strongly defended the use of decoy cameras and said port officials might add more of them. "It's a policing technique that police throughout the country do - decoys work," he said. "It's doing its job, and it doesn't cost us anything."

Gary W. McLhinney, chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said the mock cameras were installed in the early 1990s to deal with an auto theft problem at the port.

Ports said yesterday that port administrators are changing some procedures to address concerns raised in the article - though not necessarily because of it. He would not describe all of the port's plans for security improvements, but he did say officials have already taken steps on the issue of train gates being left open by their crews.

"The railroad wasn't securing it properly," Ports said.

The Sun reported that on at least one occasion an open gate - with no crew members nearby - could be observed from a public street outside the port. Port police officers say that has happened frequently.

Ports said the port had been working on the problem since the Coast Guard brought it to the agency's attention in late May - weeks before The Sun raised the question in an interview.

He said the state has since proposed a change to the Coast Guard under which Maryland Transportation Authority Police, rather than train crews, will lock and unlock the gates.

Ports said the Maryland Port Administration will also make one change that he attributed directly to the article - banning fishing from marine terminal property by state employees, longshoremen and other port workers. Port Director F. Brooks Royster III was already concerned about the practice, but "the article brought it to a head," Ports said.

Meanwhile, McLhinney said last night that he met with some of his officers at yesterday's port roll call and talked about some issues raised in the article, which was largely based on confidential interviews with members of the force.

The chief said he warned the officers that if anyone was illegally on port property or had given out sensitive security information, the department would find out and take action. But he denied that he is focused on learning who spoke to The Sun. "We have not started an investigation," he said.

"I did tell them that I support them 100 percent and they're doing an excellent job proven by their [crime statistics]," McLhinney said. He noted a series of improvements since 2002, including reductions in theft (14 percent), traffic accidents (37 percent) and security violations (330 percent).

But McLhinney also said he told the officers that what he described as "falsehoods" in the article had hurt the department's reputation. He did not give specifics.

Del. Brian K. McHale, the assistant majority whip who is also a longshoreman, called for a legislative audit into port security spending.

"I think it would be beneficial to everyone if there was a legislative audit," said McHale, a Baltimore Democrat. "That way you get a nonpartisan evaluation if the dollars are being appropriated in an efficient way."

McHale said he has seen security flaws at the port firsthand but does not think it is a likely target of a terrorist attack.

"Anything is possible. I don't think it's likely," he said.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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