Greater Greater Washington

Riders appeal to Metro police to stop bag searches

Over 100 people packed a hearing room at WMATA headquarters last night for a Riders' Advisory Council meeting about the random bag searches Metro instituted in December. Police representatives explained the basic facts of the program in the face of over 30 often-impassioned arguments against the program.


Photo by waltarrrrr on Flickr.

As Bob "Dr. Gridlock" Thomson tweeted, the crowd exceeded that of any RAC meeting in recent memory and even the size of crowds at most Metro fare hike hearings.

One notable absence, as pointed out by DC RAC member Carol Carter Walker, was Police Chief Michael Taborn. Neither he nor interim-GM Richard Sarles attended the meeting, though it had been scheduled fairly quickly just before the holiday break.

Over 30 riders spoke during the public comment session. Only one person made any statements in support of the bag search policy, while the rest opposed it, often strongly. Comments opposing the searches ran the gamut, from drawing on the ideals of liberty to worrying about racial profiling to questioning the effectiveness of this program.

One of the more eloquent speakers was a colonel in the United States Air Force. He said of the searches, "Regardless of whether [they're] constitutional, [they're] not right... If we give up liberty for security, we dishonor the sacrifice" of those who have died to protect this country.

Johnny Barnes from ACLU of the Nation's Capital said, "We can be safe and free, but we are not safe if we are not free." Sue Udry from Defending Dissent noted that FDR's famous "Four Freedoms" includes "freedom from fear," and said that this program fosters an "atmosphere of fear."

Others made less philosophical but more practical arguments. Andy Hunt argued that if he can walk 10 blocks to avoid a "peak of the peak" fare, then a terrorist certainly could do so. Apparently, quite a few people agree. A petition opposing the searches from the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition has been signed by over 600 people, evenly split between Maryland, Virginia, and the District.

Representatives of Metro Transit Police (MTPD), though, weren't fazed by the opposition. Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik gave a very brief presentation of the program without addressing concerns around effectiveness or the fear of an ever-encroaching police state.

In fact, when asked if MTPD would ever voluntarily discontinue the program, Pavlik said that would happen "when the world changes." For many in the audience and for many at MTPD, I expect, that means never.

MTPD Captain Kevin Gaddis noted that of the 55 comments Metro had received regarding this topic through their online comment system, most were supportive of the policy.

MTPD has run 5 station bag checks and screened approximately 100 riders. Only one bag tested positive, and the follow-up X-ray screening cleared that person's bag. No one has declined to be screened, although if someone left before encountering an officer, they wouldn't have been counted.

Gaddis characterized each of these sessions as "successful." When pressed, he clarified that "successful" means that the officers completed the screening with a minimum of passenger delay, no incidents occurred, and they made a "show of force" against terrorism.

Whether any terrorists were deterred, the officers couldn't say, nor whether this program has been effective in any other cities.

Searchees are selected at random by counting bags "larger than a typical woman's purse," and stopping the rider representing a predetermined number without respect to the characteristics of theat rider. No one is exempt from the searches, including children and Metro employees.

Anyone can decline to be screened, though they will not be allowed to board the train with the bag. If someone refuses a bag search, they will be permitted to "leave the bag in their car" and then board the train. When pressed about riders who arrive on foot, bicycle, or by bus and would otherwise be stranded, Pavlik agreed that riders would indeed be permitted to board a Metrobus with the bag in question.

On the other hand, Pavlik said that they could use "other means" if someone refuses to have their bag searched and leaves. They would not elaborate on what these "other means" were, and specifically avoided addressing whether these means included following or questioning search refusers.

If someone is selected for a random search and elects to allow the screening, the exterior of their bag will be examined for explosive residue. This search is only for explosives. However, if the sensor detects the residue, the officers will run the bag through an X-ray machine. If they see anything suspicious, they could open the bag, and if they find anything illegal in the second round of screening, whether explosive or not, the rider could be charged.

MTPD considers this program to come at "no cost" to the agency. The officers used for these screenings are funded through a $26 million, multi-year antiterrorism grant from the TSA. The grant funds the officers' salaries, equipment, and training. Only certain programs qualify, though that doesn't necessarily have to include random bag searches. One requirement of the grant is "visibility", which MTPD has fulfilled in the past through major "shows of force" at selected stations.

Of course, as Pavlik admitted, these officers could perform for other tasks in the system were they not screening bags. But the police force seems unable to recognize the concept of resource prioritization. Repeatedly, RAC members asked whether this was a wise use of resources. The MTPD representatives only responded that a "layered approach" was ideal, and that no one approach was best.

If bag searches take resources away from something known to be effective, that's okay with MTPD, because it means better layering. But that's a recipe for bad policy. They also seemed unconcerned that this particular layer, even with its indeterminate value, could potentially run afoul of civil liberties and undermine public support for Metro.

As far as delay is concerned, the Transit Police only seem concerned that in general the flow through the station is unimpeded. They characterized the delay to individuals as only approximately 20 seconds, but later revealed that they only count the time from when the bag "hits the table". The time when a rider is pulled aside, spoken with, or a delay resulting from a missed train or connection is not considered.

Several members of the audience pointed out even a 30 second check can result in a "cascading effect" on riders. Missing one train might mean missing an hourly bus, and an hour in the extreme cold or summer heat is an added burden to Metro's valued customers.

With respect to the searches themselves, the Transit Police report that they are not retaining any personal data from passengers who undergo screening. Records are kept regarding how many searches are done, how long they take, and at which stations they occur.

Proposals to run bag searches came up in 2005 and 2008, but following public pushback and concerns from the WMATA Board, the previous GMs and police chiefs decided not to move ahead. This time, Interim GM Sarles and Chief Taborn gave their approval with only the briefest of notifications to the Board.

I'm glad the Metro Transit Police Department is trying to make our system more secure. But this particular application, even if it's only one layer, is an inefficient and ineffective use of resources. It erodes personal liberties and public support for Metro. The Board should step in to stop the program.

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

Comments

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In summary: MTPD is happy they got a grant that allows them to create some jobs, claim that they provide "layered safety", and could not care less about the efficiency of the program and that this is a waste of taxpayers money.

by Jasper on Jan 4, 2011 12:40 pm • linkreport

I was at the meeting and this is a pretty thorough summary. Matt, I thought you gave one of the better comments of the night. I thought David did a great job running the meeting. He was the one who pressed the officers on what "successful" meant which I thought was an important point to ask. one thing you may have left out, I think this was the first time Metro publicly acknowledged that TSA officers were involved in screenings.

by Steven Yates on Jan 4, 2011 12:46 pm • linkreport

"No one is exempt from the searches, including children and Metro employees."

I'd be willing to wager that police are exempt.

Thanks for this very informative summary.

by mark on Jan 4, 2011 12:52 pm • linkreport

I just went an left a comment for Metro. I find it hard to believe that the majority of comments have been positive. That said, I hope readers of this post will make sure Metro's online system receives clear feedback about this useless policy.

by Sean on Jan 4, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised that Metro can even come up with statics from their online commenting system.

I had a machine "eat" $20 of mine months ago and I have yet to receive a refund. The station clerk filled out the form, I filled out the form and he sent it in. Months later, still no word from metro.

by T on Jan 4, 2011 1:22 pm • linkreport

That should be statistics.

by T on Jan 4, 2011 1:23 pm • linkreport

Yes, thank you for providing a link to the comment page. I also just went and filled out a complaint about this practice. I hope others will do the same. It sounded as if they thought that their count of comments via their comment page outweighed the comments being provided by the folks at the meeting despite the fact that clearly it is a lot easier to fill out an online form than it is to take time out of ones schedule and physically get oneself to a meeting place to comment. The in person comments should count at least double to ones made online.

The Post made it sound as if the Metro police said that bags the size of a purse would not be subject to search. What additional information of the insanity of this playtime police activity do you need? As if explosives or weapons cannot be fit into a purse.....

by Josh S on Jan 4, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

I like that "visibility" is a requirement of getting the program. If you're going to put on a show, might as well make sure there are people that see you do it, right?

What about classified couriers? Those bags are locked and only certain people are allowed to open them. If a courier is asked to have their bag searched and they refused (as they should), will they be prevented from taking the Metro from the State Department to the Pentagon, for example?

by Teyo on Jan 4, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

Thanks for posting the comments link, I too left a comment and encourage everyone else to leave a comment as well.

by Josh on Jan 4, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

At least the USA PATRIOT Act required reasonable suspicion to tap a phone line. This allows the police to invade an individual's privacy without any cause whatsoever.

by Pat on Jan 4, 2011 2:12 pm • linkreport

I fill out those comment cards all the time to report smelly trains, rude drivers, etc. I usually get a rather long written response within 2-3 business days.

by andrew on Jan 4, 2011 2:54 pm • linkreport

"No one has declined to be screened, although if someone left before encountering an officer, they wouldn't have been counted."

And, of course, Metro has no way of knowing if those people later boarded the train at a different station, which is exactly what a terrorist would do.

If Metro would just acknowledge this and provide some type of rebuttal against this particular issue, I'd be willing to listen. But they just keep ignoring it with their fingers in their ears and saying "La la la, I can't hear you."

by Sam on Jan 4, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

I think we should wait on the bag searches until there is an actual terrorist attack.

by M on Jan 4, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the thorough report! I was also at the meeting. I am skeptical of the Capt. Gaddis' portrayal of the 55 comments to Metro (presumably to its board of directors). He also conveniently ignored the 600+ who signed a petition opposing the searches and the dozens who spoke against them in both 2008 and 2010.

I wrote Metro's board of directors about the searches in 2008. I got a response not from the board of directors, but from Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn! My comment -- to a non-elected board but at least to one that is charged with creating policy -- was forwarded to police without my knowledge or consent! I believe Capt Gaddis said "we" only received 55 comments, which suggests this practice of forwarding emails that were sent to Metro's board to Metro Police is continuing.

I have been illegally arrested in DC for exercising my First Amendment right to protest (and got a judgment as a result, which I donated). A friend was put in a terrorist database for exercising First Amendment rights by Maryland State Police (as were many others). The police are strongly insinuated that they may take some surveillance action against those exercising their constitutional right not to consent to a search. Of COURSE people will be hesitant to complain to the police. And, I, for one, am hesitant to write the board if the comments will just be forwarded to police who care so little about our cherished liberties.

by Karen on Jan 4, 2011 3:23 pm • linkreport

@M

If/when there is an actual terrorist attack, the bag searches will only intensify. The fact that they failed to stop an attack will be used as justification that they are not getting enough funding or that they are not thorough enough and that will only lead to them becoming more invasive and widespread instead of them being scrapped in favor of something that would actually work. Just look at what has happened with TSA's airport screening efforts to predict what will happen with TSA's Metro screening efforts.

by Teyo on Jan 4, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

I hope the 10-20 folks who testified that they would never ride Metro again until the program is stopped can keep their promises, but I expect they will not; if they do, I hope they update us on the expense of driving and traffic jam delays or the joys of commuting into and around the District entirely by bus from the Md/Va burbs this winter.

by Martin on Jan 4, 2011 4:13 pm • linkreport

I think this is a great policy, if only because it'll discourage people from bringing their bags onto a crowded rush-hour Metrorail car and bumping everyone else and/or keeping others from even boarding.

Seriously--if you're not en route to/from the airport, leave the backpack or rolly case at home. In an ideal world we'd have room for all kinds of stuff, but every bag on the Orange Line at 8:45 means another person who can't get on the train.

Now will bag searches stop terrorists? Of course not. They've put bombs in their underwear. Nothing will stop them, short of more undercover plot-busting and addressing their motivations.

by JB on Jan 4, 2011 4:23 pm • linkreport

JB, I doubt anyone carrying a heavy bag is doing it for fun. They're probably doing it because they need whatever they're carrying at their destination.

by TimK on Jan 4, 2011 4:36 pm • linkreport

I dunno about you guys, but I carry a backpack with enough granola bars and TP for a week just in case snowmageddon 666 hits while I'm at the office.

by MLD on Jan 4, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

Overall, I don't have a problem with it. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in. Curious what the comments from my fellow riders will be if and when a terrorist attack occurs in the Metro. I don't think the police should do nothing and "hope" it won't happen here. Personally, I am glad the Transit Police are finally doing this. Will actually stop a terrorist attack? Who knows? But it is something. It is long over due. I ride the Metro every day and often think what a lucrative target it is.

by S. Footman on Jan 4, 2011 10:21 pm • linkreport

If the New York City Subway can get away with 5m riders per day and not have these problems, despite being a much more vast and easy target than the Metro for a number of reasons, searches on the Metro are ridiculous. Even NYC cancelled their program.

by Phil on Jan 5, 2011 12:13 am • linkreport

@S. Footman, cowering at home under one's bed is also "something" and would arguably be much more effective at keeping you safe, but then where would your liberty be?

Living life amounts to taking risks, and there is no foolproof way of eliminating all risks. So when we implement programs to address exceptionally rare risks, we have to be sure that the cost of mitigating those risks - in time, money, and restriction of freedom - is worth the achieved result.

Frittering away money on ineffectual programs simply because they are "something" doesn't make anyone safer, and stripping away freedoms in the name of security defeats the very purpose of protecting those freedoms.

by C on Jan 5, 2011 12:40 am • linkreport

I'd urge the RAC to hold another hearing on the same topic. I was not able to attend and I would like to voice my displeasure to Metro.

by Redline SOS on Jan 5, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

@ Redline SOS

I think the RAC committee has a full (public?) board meeting tonight, right? It's probably better just to note opposition directly to WMATA at this point, since the RAC is already opposed. But please at least go to the WMATA web site a look at the videos of the actual process before you express objection...

by Martin on Jan 5, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

Will the TSA grant also cover the cost of defending or settling the inevitable lawsuits challenging this program's constitutionality and/or accusing officers of misconduct such as racial profiling?

by Jacob on Jan 5, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

Overall, I don't have a problem with it. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in. Curious what the comments from my fellow riders will be if and when a terrorist attack occurs in the Metro. I don't think the police should do nothing and "hope" it won't happen here. Personally, I am glad the Transit Police are finally doing this. Will actually stop a terrorist attack? Who knows? But it is something. It is long over due. I ride the Metro every day and often think what a lucrative target it is.
It's great that you asked this question. I happen to know. It won't stop a terrorist attack.

Isn't it great when we reflexively trust authority?

by Squalish on Jan 9, 2011 2:23 am • linkreport

Footman,
You are spot on. I am an avid sports fan and enjoy checking out a lot of the local museums etc. The bag searches at Metro seem a lot less intrusive than the security I go through to visit a local museum or watch one of my favorite sport teams. It is so easy to sit back and knock this program, but unfortunately we live in a world where some want to do us harm on a big scale. The DC Metro is a target. The police have the responsibility to do what they can to prevent. It seems like so many chiming in on here live in some mythical make-believe place where nothing bad happens. Well, that place doesn't exist. Thanks for your sage comments Footman. Peace out.
Jake.

by jake Murphy on Jan 10, 2011 8:56 pm • linkreport

I feel the bag searches are wrong, what if I have my drugs stash on me? Now I will have to worry about some cop searching me for no reason. The bag searches are violation of freedom.

by M on Jan 11, 2011 9:11 am • linkreport

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