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Bag search policy another example of siloed thinking

To most riders, WMATA's bag search policy is intuitively foolish. But, as statements at recent Riders' Advisory Council meetings make clear, within the mindset of the Metro Transit Police (MTPD), they're entirely logical. This is another example of how silos inside WMATA lead to bad decisions.

Taborn and Catoe. Image from WMATA.

Last night, Chief Taborn echoed the statements of his underlings from Monday: Taborn said that this program is one of many tools in the police's toolbox, and they feel they have to do "everything" for security.

In other words, it's not his job to balance this program against others, or against the costs outside the police department. For example, if this undermines rider support for Metro which make other initiatives more difficult, that's not his problem. If it draws expensive lawsuits which sap WMATA's budget, it's not his problem.

However, if it takes police away from patrolling platforms, and as a result someone gets hurt or killed by regular non-terrorist thugs, that should be Taborn's problem. But it's not his job to consider this program in light of the bigger picture.

That's Richard Sarles' job, and Sarles has fallen down on this job. Sarles should not have authorized moving forward on a program whose value is extremely dubious, given other public safety needs and other potential drawbacks. Perhaps any security program, no matter what its value, is a good idea to Taborn, but someone higher up in the chain needs to intervene and say that such a controversial and intrusive program isn't worth the huge range of costs.

The same issue emerged with the 7000-series railcars. The people in charge of the railcars didn't want to consider longitudinal seating (where people sit with their back to the wall) because it might be a little bit less safe. However, they could not quantify this at all.

Assuming a train crashes into another, which it shouldn't since WMATA ought to fix the signals, then maybe—maybe—someone might get thrown a little farther down the car than they might have otherwise, which could possibly lead to a little bit more harm. Or something.

But what is the chance someone would fall off a platform that wouldn't be so overcrowded if cars had more capacity? Who knows? That's not the 7000 Series designers' problem.

On Monday, RAC member Carol Carter Walker also asked whether MTPD had done any outreach to the community or civil liberties groups before instituting the program. Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik seemed baffled by the suggestion that they should work with anyone outside MTPD as opposed to simply "notifying" the Board, riders, and others that the searches were going to happen. They certainly didn't talk to the RAC.

Jay Marks of DC said in his comments, "I don't have any confidence that the Metro Board will listen to [the RAC] either, but thanks for trying." Based on Board Chairman Peter Benjamin's comments to Dr. Gridlock, there's reason to worry the Board may not stand up for liberty. If they don't, they're doing a lot of harm to the agency they represent.

It's always politically tough for elected or appointed officials to stand up in the face of comments like, "If only one person's life is saved, then this program is worth it." That's the kind of thinking that is leading the Board to put every safety measure, no matter how questionable in value, above every other kind of repair the system needs, or Sarles to put this bag search program above all other public safety priorities.

There's an easier way out. The Board should agree to hold a public hearing on this issue and members should express their concerns about the program in a meeting. Then, Sarles, who's going to leave really soon anyway, should quietly stop performing the searches, just as they started them with little notice. Everyone can claim to still be protecting safety, and WMATA can reverse a very bad decision.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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A good point regarding this #metroopensbags business. I thought I heard an announcement in L'Enfant last evening saying that they were going to search again on 9 Jan.

Regarding the 7000 series...I'm OK with them not doing longitudinal seating :-) I don't like domino effects down the line. The Jerky rides would sway everyone from left to right, whereas the current main seating configurations at least give you back support when the train moves jerkily in one direction...oh, and you don't have to smell your neighbor's arm pit when it happens, too.

by Matt Glazewski on Jan 6, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

There's an easier way out. The Board should agree to hold a public hearing on this issue and members should express their concerns about the program in a meeting. Then, Sarles, who's going to leave really soon anyway, should quietly stop performing the searches, just as they started them with little notice.

Well, that assumes the Board and Sarles think it's bad policy. In the NY bag search lawsuit, several terrorism experts, including Richard Clarke, testified that they believe the searches are effective. I give greater weight to their arguments than to the RAC's, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Board and Sarles agree.

by jcm on Jan 6, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

This is another example of how silos inside WMATA lead to bad decisions.

David, how should we change WMATA to address these silos? If you were GM, what would you do - not just for the bag search thing, but for decision-making generally?

Let's hear some good solutions.

by Just161 on Jan 6, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

Your contention is silly. The fact is that this program may or may not prove to be a deterrent. I would hate to find out the hard way. Ultimately, the system because of wide access is almost impossible to secure. If WMATA chooses to disagree with the RAC that is their prerogative. The Board after is responsible not the RAC.

by Interested on Jan 6, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

The dysfunction at all levels of WMATA is staggering.

by Ron on Jan 6, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

Can GGW please do a thoughtful post on the increasing violence in Metro stations and the lack of accountability on the part of Metro for deterring (or responding to) these attacks?

Instead of wasting time with these bag checks, WMATA and Transit Police needs to step up vigilance, especially at Gallery Place and L'Enfant. This blog is a valuable resource to the community and must stop ignoring this very real and frightening issue.

by Reza on Jan 6, 2011 2:13 pm • linkreport

Given the limited resources, it doesn't really make sense to invest so much, even if the funding is derived from the feds, for something that yields so little. I agree that this silo mentality is crippling to the WMATA and is different than what they were 15 years ago, an organization working together to build a new transportation system.

I think the only way to change this is from the top, to say WMATA has one common goal, a public transportation system that works for our customers.

by Randall M. on Jan 6, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

Silo mentality is not only crippling metro. It's all over the place. Technically, this is not WMATA's silo thinking but MTPDs, ot TSAs silo thinking. They are there to secure safety, not for rider comfort.

by Jasper on Jan 6, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

On longitudinal seating (I know it's going on a tangent, but tangents are my bread & butter)...

In event of sudden deceleration for whatever reason, wouldn't it be better to fall in a natural manner -- where the body tends to roll into the landing & may be cushioned by those in front of you -- as opposed to having your fall abrupted by a metal hand railing on the top of a solid plastic seat? It'd seem that if they really want to cite safety in event of collisions: pad the railings.

(not that I *want* padded railings; I'm just using it as a point of argument)

by Bossi on Jan 6, 2011 3:38 pm • linkreport

Well, that's a lovely example of The Politician's Syllogism! "We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it."

I almost wonder if we might not be better off if the RAC starts making absurd suggestions in the name of safety to underline the point. Here's a few to get you started:
1. Trains should move at no more than 25mph.
2. All train cars should be fitted with seatbelts. People must be seated at all times when inside the train car.
3. To decrease the likelihood of injury in case of an accident, the floor should be replaced with spring floor. In case of a collision, the automatic squishy ball dispensers should immediately dispense squishy balls to prevent a collision.


by varun on Jan 6, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

Nevermind safety, I kind of want #3 just for fun.

by Bossi on Jan 6, 2011 4:04 pm • linkreport

CM Wells chimed in on the policy this morning: Maybe he should sit down with Chief Taborn and possibly give Richard Clarke a call before he makes a decision one way or another since he now repesents DC Council and ergo DC residents on the Board.

by CCCA Prez on Jan 6, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

It seems like there may be siloed thinking on not just one side of this issue.

by chap on Jan 6, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

After reading this post it made me wonder if the police ever arrested additional people (more than three) after the 70 person fight that happened back in August. And I wonder if they would release the tapes from that fight so the public can understand what really happened...also the public could help find the additional people who started the fight....unless the police already found the other criminals and I just didn't see the update. If someone knows of an update on that please let me know.

Also, at Monday's RAC meeting the police said they received 55 comments (mostly positive) from the public. I find it very strange that the 55 comments that they received before the meeting were mostly positive and then when they get to the meeting they end up hearing mostly negative comments that are against the random bag searches. It just does not add up to me. If anyone knows why this is the case please post it on here and let me know.

by Nicole on Jan 6, 2011 8:13 pm • linkreport

There are no bag searches on the NYC subway. I've commuted that way for years and never once seen or even heard of one.

by itzajob on Jan 6, 2011 8:13 pm • linkreport

@ Bossi: I kind of want #3 just for fun

Me too. And how 'bout
4: Airbags in the metro to prevent injuries after sudden shocks....

by Jasper on Jan 6, 2011 9:18 pm • linkreport

NYC MTA conducted searches of their riders in 2005. I am not sure if they have done any searches since then. In 2005 U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman stated that the "container inspection program" is constitutional.

by Nicole on Jan 6, 2011 9:57 pm • linkreport

Speaking of security on Metro:

Now, I expect the usual wave of liberal apologists on this site to come out and say "well, that's how teens act". EVERY single instance of a mob attack on the Metro system, to my recollection, has been perpetrated by black youths. I know of no instances of groups of white kids attacking people on a public transportation system. It is time for the denizens of the DC blogosphere to acknowledge the reality that in this city and area, blacks are responsible for much of the worst crimes, and our policies ought to reflect that.

Additionally, the black middle class paradise of PG county is on a record pace for homocides, not one week into the new year.

by MPC on Jan 7, 2011 1:13 am • linkreport

@ MPC The way those kids acted was deplorable, and so is your racist post.

by jcm on Jan 7, 2011 7:21 am • linkreport

Let's just replace the Board with the RAC. We'll have much better resluts.

by Redline SOS on Jan 7, 2011 9:20 am • linkreport

"I know of no instances of groups of white kids attacking people on a public transportation system."

There was a very well publicized case of a gang of white kids attacking people at Bethesda station late last year. Your case of selective amnesia would identify you as a racist, but you're probably just trolling. That means you're insensitive and sociopathic, but not necessarily a racist.

by Phil on Jan 7, 2011 10:25 am • linkreport

@ MPC-
Your idea of "...the worst crimes" is slightly off. I'd say the white collar crimes, perpetrated almost entirely by white people, are in fact the most dastardly, most heinous, indeed the worst of the worst! The sad state of our economy as a result of Wall Street shenanigans, the illegal war going on still, the theft of billions in defense appropriations- these are the worst crimes. Come back down to earth, MPC. Smell the corruption. Absolutely nothing that happens on the streets of the DC area even remotely compares to the crimes of white people in this land. Get real!

by KevinM on Jan 7, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport


If wanted to read a whining DailyKos post, I would have gone there. As it stands, that 'illegal war' and those defense appropriations have been very good to my bank account, so you're not changing any minds on my end.

by MPC on Jan 7, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

@ MPC-
I wasn't whining, just giving the facts. Just the facts. You are laughable, to put it mildly. At least you admit the crimes, and the culpability of your race. As for where you should go, don't get me started...

by KevinM on Jan 7, 2011 6:45 pm • linkreport

Kevin: This comment is an ad hominem attack (several, in fact). Please confine your comments to a discussion of the issue, not of the other people commenting.

by David Alpert on Jan 7, 2011 7:51 pm • linkreport

Thank you for being a voice of reason, Alpert. It's a shame when newcomers like Kevin are unable to pick up on the tradition of civilized discussion set by MPC and others.

by MPC on Jan 8, 2011 3:27 am • linkreport

@ MPC- LMAO!!!

@ David- well, you know how I feel about you, my brother from another mother...

by KevinM on Jan 8, 2011 7:31 am • linkreport

Seriously, David, is not your sense of direction ever-so-slightly off? Perhaps you should point that rebuke at the person who went off the deep end...

At any rate it matters not. Certain people in this country have been hiding from the truth for many many years. The comment about blacks doing most of the crime is the one that should have drawn your attention, and I think that should be obvious.

by KevinM on Jan 8, 2011 7:40 am • linkreport

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