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WMATA Board won't stop bag searches

WMATA CEO Richard Sarles and Chief Michael Taborn retain the authority to keep randomly checking riders' bags, after only Tommy Wells and Kathy Porter stood up clearly opposed to the program during a Board discussion today.

Photo by Paul Graham Raven on Flickr.

Others either cited a belief that the bag searches were just, or an unwillingness to stop even an unjust program against the bugaboo of security.

Tom Downs, new DC member, long-time transit professional, and chair of the Customer Service and Operations Committee, introduced the discussion by announcing that the Board felt it "knew what it was doing" when it delegated authority to the General Manager and police chief to make decisions about security measures including bag searches.

He added that the Board didn't seem interested in challenging the General Manager's judgment and authority in this matter.

Instead, he hoped the discussion would center around how to communicate this decision to customers. "Without a dedicated commitment to listening to our customers about heartfelt issues about privacy and other rights and about security," he said, the Board risks having the kind of reaction that the TSA encountered to its pat-downs.

Fairfax's Cathy Hudgins, the current Board chair, added that the Board should explore whether better communication could "alleviate concerns and stress" for riders over this program.

That wasn't compelling to Kathy Porter, new alternate from Montgomery County. She pointed out that there's not much the Board could do with any feedback it might receive, if it's not interested in taking any action based on that feedback.

"I respect the GM and the chief," she said, and acknowledged the law enforcement imperative to protect the safety and security of the system. However, she said, "Our relationship with our riders has a significant impact on the safety and security of the system," and that surely is the purview of the Board.

Fairfax's Jeff McKay, a staunch supporter of the bag searches, wondered why the Board was discussing the issue in this context. If they want to discuss the program, discuss the program, he said; but is there really value in discussing how much communication is needed for security measures?

McKay added that he'd hate to see any rules that the GM and chief had to give a certain amount of notice to the public if future credible threats arise and they have to institute other security measures.

McKay has a point. The Board was trying to avoid having to confront the bag searches directly through this exercise in talking instead about communication. The conversation became much better once they got their views out in the open. Some wholeheartedly like the program, some clearly don't, and others remained reluctant to take a stand.

DC Councilmember Tommy Wells argued that questions about the program "are highly appropriate" given the level of scrutiny the Board puts into spending priorities in other areas, like railcar replacement. He said that there is a tradeoff between any security measure's effectiveness and other factors, and that's what the Board should consider; he comes out against the program on those grounds.

Federal member Mort Downey feels differently. "This is a national security issue," said Downey, and "outweighs every other issue in civil society." Downey said he is afraid of having to go before a Congressional committee to justify why Metro didn't take these precautions.

It's clear Downey simply thinks the program is fine, but the argument about Congressional committees is the least convincing argument of all. We don't want Board members who make decisions based on what Senators might say in the event of various outcomes. That's a recipe for policy decisions based more on fear than on good policy.

Downey actually seemed to want stronger measures, saying that the current searches were just the edge of what needs to be done. He lamented the way airport security measures were "pushed back" by airlines before the 9/11 attacks.

Maryland's Peter Benjamin began his own remarks by saying that he's a long-term member of the ACLU, and a strong believer in civil rights. "I feel that bag checks are a violation of those rights, and the beginning of a process that moves towards us having fewer and fewer and fewer of those rights," he said.

If the decision was up to him, he'd take the risk of someone possibly getting in, blowing something up, and him being a victim of an attack. He feels that this program's effectiveness does not outweigh the cost.

As listeners could guess from hearing a statement starting with "I'm a long-term member of the ACLU," there was a "but." Benjamin continued that he's also sworn to uphold the safety and security of the system and the riders. He isn't comfortable making the decision for other riders, and while he heard the overwhelming rider input at the RAC meeting and the RAC's resolution, he doesn't know if that reflects all riders and isn't willing to overturn the expert opinion of the GM and police chief.

Just last week, Benjamin himself swore in several new Board members, and so we know that in that oath also includes a promise to uphold the Constitution. Did he forget about this piece?

Richard Sarles noted that given time and "being relaxed," he'd prefer to solicit more customer feedback, and he did have concerns about civil liberties, but "wanted to be ahead of the game instead of behind," especially going into the holiday season. Sarles defended his right to make decisions when necessary, saying if he had to take action for the safety of riders, "By God, I'm going to make that decision."

Sarles should have that right. McKay is right that the Board shouldn't require some long consultation process. However, it's also right for the Board to review whether the GM has gone too far. Most apparently don't.

But what about that slippery slope Benjamin is worried about (but not too worried)? Wells asked Chief Taborn, why not implement full body scans, or 100% ID checks to enter Metro? Porter later asked, if the GM did decide to start such programs, would the Board want to know?

There wasn't a good answer to that. Instead, Downs concluded with a suggstion to "establish some values" around customer communication. He made a good point that it might be healthy for the police to be doing more talking with concerned riders; at the RAC meeting, Capt. Kevin Gaddis seemed shocked at a suggestion he might benefit from talking with the ACLU and other groups from time to time. A little dialogue could go a long way if the police can come to see riders as something other than potential enemies.

The dangling question is how far the Board would let the GM and police chief go. To listen to Downey and McKay, who brought up many of the usual tropes about how things were different on 9/12/2001 versus 9/10/2001 and how we live in a different world, anything the GM does in the name of safety is acceptable.

It sounded suspiciously similar to the arguments for torture and Guantanamo. If only the Obama administration might reconsider its choice of federal representatives to find one that shares its values beyond simply having long expertise in transit.

Meanwhile, at least there's hope that the pushback on this program might dissuade Sarles and Taborn from performing very many bag searches or venturing into even more invasive security measures. And if that happens, a few more Board members just might find some fortitude and stand with Porter and Wells.

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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The Board appointed a talented and vigorous CEO to manage the system. They should stand behind his decisions or replace him with someone who has their confidence.

I agree with you that the searches are bad policy; however the CEO needs to make these decisions.

by WRD on Feb 10, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

The bag search/inspection program significantly changed the relationship between Metro riders and the Metro Police. If that doesn't rise to the level of a policy discussion which should be had by the policy board, I don't know what does.

These discussions and decisions aren't comfortable or easy to have, particularly not in public settings. Tough. That's life. And that's your job.

Regardless of the Board's final decision, I was hopeful that they would at least have an appropriately thoughtful and thorough discussion of this matter. I am highly disappointed not only in the outcome, but in the process.

by Penny Everline on Feb 10, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

How about let's just ban bags altogether? I'm tired of seeing women with TWO large purses, tired of getting bumped by dudes with backpacks or gym bags. Why on earth do you need to lug all the junk with you to work?

Banning bags would just about eliminate the threat of carry-on hidden bombs. It would also make more room for people.

Going to the airport? Send your stuff on ahead via a paid service. Take a cab. Or get someone to drop you off.

by JB on Feb 10, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

A lot of arguments seem to stem from the idea that they shouldn't be allowed by default. While that makes sense to me, it seems the argument needs to be made from the other side at this point.

Why not ask the board things like:
1) Are these searches actually effective, either as a deterrent or as a roadblock? When confronted with their repeated statements that these are going to deter terrorists via throwing a wrench in their "routine", someone needs to establish that it's a weak argument.

2) How does one measure the success of this particular program? How does one measure the *expense*, as well? Obviously the answer will be "You can't, because if it's working, we'll never see it".. Can't it be countered that if it isn't working, we'll never see it, either? All security decisions are going to be a trade-off between convenience and security.. Ask if airport-style security screening (shoes off, x-rays), etc. would be acceptable. They'd surely say no because it would make Metro useless. So they've established random bag searches are the trade-off they're willing to make. That level of "expense". Ask them why, if safety is paramount, they aren't going up to the full level that it would require to maintain a fully functioning Metro. Remind them that they don't seem to consider cost a factor. Ask them why they aren't throwing more resources and money at it. After all, it is supposed to be prioritized above everything else, right? By that logic, shouldn't escalators be a luxury?

3) Ask them define to a particular metric or metrics by which bag searches "need" to happen. This can't just be subject to prevailing whims.

4) Ask them if, hypothetically, an attack happened. Would they cite that as a reason for needing more bag searches, or an example of its ineffectiveness

by J on Feb 10, 2011 2:53 pm • linkreport

"Federal member Mort Downey feels differently. "This is a national security issue," said Downey, and "outweighs every other issue in civil society.""

No, Mr. Downey, it doesn't not. Faux-hysteria about "national security" should never trump my, or your, civil rights. That it has done so, and continues to do so, is a sorry state of affairs in this country.

by Birdie on Feb 10, 2011 2:54 pm • linkreport

"If only the Obama administration might reconsider its choice of federal representatives to find one that shares its values beyond simply having long expertise in transit."

I think that most civil liberties activists would say that the opinions expressed by Mr. Downey fit quite nicely into the overall body of Obama administration policy with respect to civil liberties/privacy rights.

by Matt on Feb 10, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

Like so many craven, heads-in-the-sand politicians, they like to pretend they have a communications problem, not a policy problem.

by Paul on Feb 10, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

Why don't they randomly stop and search the cars coming into DC each and every day? Is it because terrorists don't drive? Is it because a car/truck bomb is much less likely than a suicide bomber? Or maybe it is because Metro is an easy target for programs like this.

This ineffective random bag search campaign is yet another example of how transit in this country is a second class citizen. If they did start stopping/searching cars, it would last not more than a single day given the outrage "motorists" would express.

by Metro Rider on Feb 10, 2011 4:31 pm • linkreport

Just last week, Benjamin himself swore in several new Board members, and so we know that in that oath also includes a promise to uphold the Constitution. Did he forget about this piece?

Maybe he believes it's constitutional, the same way every judge that looked at a similar program in NY believes.

And if that happens, a few more Board members just might find some fortitude and stand with Porter and Wells.
Or maybe Porter and Wells will learn to trust their CEO and chief of police, and turn their attention to something that's actually important. Like how to fund our transit system. And maybe the RAC will find something else to worry about, too.

by jcm on Feb 10, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

Well, jcm, maybe some of us find our civil rights to be "actually important". And sometimes judges get it wrong - or cave to political pressure, just as other political figures do.

by Bryant Turnage on Feb 10, 2011 6:01 pm • linkreport

@ Bryant Turnage You must have a really difficult time getting on an airplane, or going to a baseball game, or serving jury duty, etc.

by jcm on Feb 10, 2011 6:26 pm • linkreport

You must have a really difficult time getting on an airplane, or going to a baseball game, or serving jury duty, etc.

By that same logic you must have a real easy time with strangers fondling your genitalia.

If they have information on a specific, credible threat I can understand instituting a search. But random bag searches are intrusive, costly, and pointless. How many terrorists have we caught with them? How many deaths have there been on Metro due to outdated equipment and poor safety practices? Wouldn't the money for the former be better spent on the fixing the latter?

by Mojotron on Feb 11, 2011 12:46 am • linkreport


There is a Facebook Page to keep the Solar Decathlonon the Mall:

by RJ on Feb 11, 2011 8:54 am • linkreport

@ Mojotron How is that the same logic?

by jcm on Feb 11, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

Even if Mort Downey is correct that security is the number one concern in these times (I do not think it is), the bag searches are just another example of "security theater." There is no evidence they prevent terrorism -- only theory. Given Metro's budget woes, the GM should be held to a higher standard in demonstrating such searches are necessary and worth the money.

And to JB re banning bags -- banning PEOPLE from Metro would be even more effective -- and just as ridiculous.

by Marina Streznewski on Feb 11, 2011 3:47 pm • linkreport

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