Car attacks remain a threat

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Thwarting vehicular attacks remains difficult, experts say


  • The driver of a Honda Accord plowed through a crowded Times Square sidewalk last week, killing one person and injuring 22. Preventing similar attacks in New York City will remain a challenge, security experts say. Photo: Francisco Díaz De Azevedo

Law enforcement officials say they will evaluate protections in place to defend against vehicle attacks after a driver plowed through pedestrians on a crowded Times Square sidewalk last week, killing one person and injuring 22 others.

Richard Rojas, a 26-year-old Bronx resident with a history of drunken driving arrests, was heading south on Seventh Avenue in his Honda Accord shortly before noon on May 18, when he abruptly made a U-turn near 42nd Street and drove onto the sidewalk. He drove northbound on the sidewalk at high speed for about three blocks, striking and dragging pedestrians along the way. Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan, was hit between 42nd and 43rd Streets and died at the scene. The vehicle came to a stop when it hit a metal bollard on the northwest corner of West 45th Street.

Rojas was quickly taken into custody and charged with one count of second-degree murder, 20 counts of second-degree attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. City officials said that though the attack appeared to have been intentional, they had quickly determined that it was not related to terrorism. “Thank God, based on what we know now, there is no indication that this was an act of terror,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said shortly after the attack.

Before police ruled out terror as a motive, many on the scene assumed the incident was similar to in nature to recent jihadist attacks involving vehicles in Berlin, London, Nice and elsewhere. NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill indicated that terrorism was his first thought upon hearing of the incident. “Of course, the worst went through my mind, and that’s why the mayor and I came here as quickly as we could,” he said.

Though police do not believe Rojas was motivated by jihadist ideology, the attack bore many of the hallmarks of vehicular terrorism, despite officials’ reluctance to classify it as such. “It actually was, in essence, of an act of terrorism in the sense that someone purposefully aimed a vehicle at people intending to cause maximum carnage,” Eugene O’Donnell, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former NYPD officer said in an email, adding that exhaustively exploring Rojas’ motivation would remain a priority for law enforcement officials.

Rick Mathews, a counterterrorism expert and professor at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College, said that quickly ruling out terrorism allowed police to avoid clearing the entire area and sending officers to defend other potential targets from possible coordinated attacks. “In this case, the person driving the vehicle was alive. They talked to him. They knew exactly who he was, what he wanted to do, and why he did it,” he said. “That’s not the case in a lot of these other ones around the world where the attacker has often also been killed.”

O’Donnell said the police are better than they were at responding after the fact to these events. “However, it remains to be seen whether our capacity to thwart actual attacks is substantially improved,” he said. “The lesson we have learned from Nice, Germany and London is that a single actor, almost impulsively, can cause catastrophic harm in a short period with easily obtainable weaponry, in this case a vehicle.”

William Aubry, NYPD chief of detectives for Manhattan South, said at a press conference the day after the attack that safety measures in place in Times Square, such as the metal bollard that eventually brought Rojas’ vehicle to a halt, had likely prevented more people from being injured or killed. Aubry added that the NYPD would review the incident “to look for ways that we can defend something like this from happening in the future.”

Mathews praised the NYPD’s response to the incident and said that so-called target hardening measures such as concrete and metal barriers are “do stop most vehicles from moving into the crowds and hurting people,” but said that preventing vehicular attacks altogether is likely to remain a challenge for police. “The issue they run into is that it’s something that is almost impossible to prevent unless we want to prevent the comingling of motor vehicles and pedestrians in the same general vicinity,” he said.

“We are a society where we like our freedom and flexibility, and it’s no different with vehicles and people,” Mathews said. “The only way to totally prevent that kind of incident occurring is to prevent traffic and people from being in the same area, and that’s just generally not going to happen.”

Four days after the Times Square vehicle attack, an apparent terrorist bombing at a May 22 concert in Manchester, England, killed 22 people. NYPD officials said they were closely monitoring the events in England and had stepped up security in the city in response. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement, “Out of an abundance of caution, I have directed state law enforcement officials to step up security and patrols at high-profile locations across New York, including our airports, bridges, tunnels and mass transit systems.”

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