Metro bag searches aren't always optional
If you refuse a bag search at a WMATA subway station, Metro Transit Police may follow you if you leave and even if you board a bus. That's what happened to me Tuesday morning in Shaw.
I entered the Shaw Metro station with a bag containing my lunch and my laptop. An officer waved me aside on the north mezzanine and told me to put my bag on the table for inspection. Stunned that I was being stopped without cause, I asked the officer if he had a warrant. He said that if I refused, I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation."
I refused the search, which is mostly about theatrics than actual security. I didn't want to enable what critics have labeled "security theater", the symbolic show of force to give the appearance of protection. In fact, WMATA admits that since they don't search every bag, it's really more about perception, providing "an additional visible layer of protection." Putting on a show is not a good reason to rummage through people's personal items and I didn't want to enable that behavior and belief.
By agreeing to an "optional" WMATA search, I was afraid I would also be inadvertently consenting to a search of my laptop, which would be an abusive and unreasonable intrusion for a transit agency. I wasn't sure if the officers were properly trained to know the nuances of what was and wasn't an appropriate search. How would you even argue with an officer who believes random bag checks at one station actually deter terrorism, anyway? It's like arguing the plot in a fiction novel: the very premise is that facts only partly matter.
Remembering reports that Metro Transit Police only set up searches at one entrance, I pointed to the south mezzanine and said, "I can use that entrance," and the officer said nothing. I left the north entrance to walk to the south entrance a block away.
As I descended the escalators to the south mezzanine, I spotted more officers in the distance. Realizing that the answer would probably be the same at this entrance. I calmly turned around and left, deciding to catch the bus instead.
Little did I know that Metro Transit Police would follow me there. I boarded the 70 bus, which runs above the Green and Yellow lines on 7th Street NW and SW. Two officers got on behind me. Their vests were marked with the word "Terrorism" (perhaps, "Anti-Terrorism" or "Counter-Terrorism", I don't remember which), so clearly they were not there to investigate a fist fight, theft, or fare evasion.
One officer took a seat and another stood, mostly watching his phone. Neither of them said anything to me.
Perhaps it was a coincidence, I thought. Why would police follow me for refusing a supposedly "optional" search, even after I was told I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation"? I was on another mode, after all.
When the bus reached H Street, where I intended to transfer to the Red Line, I paused a moment in my seat, to see what the officers were doing. They remained on the bus. I then got up and stood in line to leave the front of the bus. As I neared the front door, I looked back and noticed that one of the officers had left the back door of the bus and was standing outside.
To test if he was following me, I then sat down in a seat at the front of the bus, and the officer re-boarded the bus through the back door. The driver closed the doors and I asked her if she could reopen it so I could leave. She pushed the door mechanism, which reopened the front and the back door and I left the bus.
As I left the bus at the front door, the officer standing at the back door, partly hanging out the bus, waved and smiled at me through the glass of the rear open door. This act was about sending me a message: if you refuse a search, you will be followed, which is itself a form of intimidation.
WMATA's stated policy allows customers to refuse the allegedly optional search. "Customers who encounter a baggage checkpoint at a station entrance may choose not to enter the station if they would prefer not to submit their carry-ons for inspection," it says.
While you may be "welcome to use another mode of transportation," bag searches aren't really optional if Metro Transit Police follow you and deliberately make it known that they're following you.
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