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Posted at 3:25 PM ET, 12/21/2010

Reader questions on Metro bag checks

By Robert Thomson

I just finished a lively online chat about the bag inspection program that Metro launched today, but there were scores of questions and comments left over. So I'd like to share some of these previously unpublished ones with you in this posting. Occasionally, I'll come in with a response.

Bag Searches
Metro should be ashamed. This new policy is wasteful, silly, and will only further erode our liberties. The quote on the news this morning from Metro that all of the rider responses they received this morning were positive sounds exactly like the type of nonsense we used to mock from authoritarian regimes.

What rider would appreciate this type of wasteful intrusion that cannot possibly stop a terrorist? Several riders who were stopped and missed their trains and were quoted in news stories did not sound too appreciative.

Washingtonians, more so than citizens of almost any other city with the possible exception of NY, have to put up with far too many indignities in the name of security -- jersey barriers everywhere, overly aggressive federal security agents, demands for identification to enter public buildings, and now this.

Rider safety on Metro is increasingly in doubt but it is not going to be corrected by this type of silly security theater.

DG: This commenter went on to note some things that many riders were citing as clear and present dangers: "faulty escalators, malfunctioning switches, distracted bus drivers, or unruly passengers."

Role of the Metro board
I find it highly interesting that a federal agency, the TSA, is doing this, not the Metro transit police. Did the Metro board actively vote to allow this? Did any of the many, many liberals on the board vote no or express any concerns regarding possible violations of due process? Jim Graham, perhaps?

DG: Transit police and TSA officers are working together on this. The Post's Ann Scott Tyson reported this morning that TSA officers were at the tables at Braddock Road Station, applying the swabs to people's property. The Metro board has been all but invisible on this issue, even though the police inspections cross a major threshold in the transit authority's relationship with hundreds of thousands of riders. If you could hear what minutiae this "policy making" board sometimes gets into with the staff at public meetings, this lack of discussion would leap out.

Make Metro safer with officers on trains
If they really want to make Metro safer they should have officers on the trains and on the platforms. In the afternoons, there are often rowdy teens at Gallery Place making people uncomfortable.

DG: I'd love to see more officers on the trains and buses, and in the stations and parking areas. My complaint is with this particular security program, not with our transit police officers. When I talk to riders about security, the security they're thinking of is protection on the trains when school lets out, or when they walk from the stations to the parking areas. They'd like to see better lighting in the stations, and they'd like to have escalators with working brakes. But there's no Homeland Security grant for those things.

Serious Question
Does Metro just hate its riders? Bag checks, trying 2-car trains at night ...

DG: Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn gets a lot of respect from me, because I think he's completely dedicated to protecting riders. (Again, my beef is with the policy, not the police.) This policy should have been fully vetted by the Metro board, in consultation with the riders -- through the Riders' Advisory Council, for example. The two-car train idea died almost as soon as it was launched, but it's another example of Metro launching a program that affects lots of people without bothering to talk to them about it.

The Riders' Advisory Council plans to meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3, to discuss the inspection program. David Alpert, a vice chairman of the council and founder of the Greater Greater Washington blog, says the panel wants to hear from riders and hopes to hear from a representative of the transit police.

What's the Fuss?
Dr G., How is this any different than going to the airport? There is 100 percent screening at the airport. So why are you so disturbed by this?

DG: You just told me how it's different than going to the airport. Instead of a check on all passengers and luggage, the Metro program uses a handful of officers to check a couple of stations. We have no reasonable expectation that this type of inspection will actually catch bad people.

When security people talk about this type of program, they tend to talk about the deterrence effect. It's designed to create a hubbub at transit stations. A would-be terrorist might see the commotion and turn away. In other words, it's designed to generate fear rather than actual security. Actual security is what you have at airports.

The Metro program might someday deter an actual terrorist. We'll probably never know. What we can know is that it generates tension and fear among riders. I think the transit program is unreasonable. We can't measure the reward, if any. We can measure the impact on riders and their civil liberties.

By Robert Thomson  | December 21, 2010; 3:25 PM ET
Categories:  Metro, Metrobus, Transportation Politics  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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What I want to know is: Why haven't any of our local elected officials weighed in on this?

In VA we have an AG who is willing to throw tons of resources at challenging parts of the Federal health care bill, so why hasn't he stepped in and examined Metro's "plan" (sorry, I know using the terms 'Metro' and 'plan' in the same sentence is an oxymoron - like using the term 'manager' with 'Metro')?

This is just a half-baked effort by Metro to shift focus from their pitiful services and death-trap escalators/trains/station platforms and to rake in more funds next year.

Posted by: mika_england | December 21, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

One reader asks how this is any different from an airport check. Another compared it to entering a sporting event. Here's the HUGE difference- in those other cases, you don't have to go to those places. Instead of flying, you can drive. Instead of watching a game live, you can watch it on tv. Therefore, checks at those places are considered consentual.

For many, many folks, public transportation is their only option. If they want to get to work or home, they have to submit to the screening, so it's not at all consentual; it's downright coercive. I seriously doubt this practice would hold up if actually given any legal scrutiny at all. But let's be honest: this has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with money. The government buys these bomb-sniffing toys and lets their pseudo-cop squad at TSA play with them.

Posted by: pswift00 | December 21, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

What does London do for their transit security? Or Spain? Both have had incidents.

Posted by: rjm1 | December 21, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Keep Fear Alive.

This is why Metro would never allow an elected, accountable Metro Board.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | December 21, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Dear Dr. G,

Thanks for the post and information regarding the Rider's Advisory Board and Greater Greater Washington Blog. The Metro announcement came from nowhere and much of it is vague. For example,

1) What happens if I decline being searched? The Metro web site says that I will be prohibited from bringing the item onto the Metro. It seems like the Metro/TSA folks are splitting hairs, I have civil rights but my backpack does not. Will they take my backpack from me? My backpack contains essential medication that I need during the day? Why do I need to choose between my health and my civil rights?

2) What good is this procedure if I can grab a ride from a friend and enter another station?

All of this strikes me as a show of security and not a true attempt in making me secure.

Posted by: nidomhnail | December 21, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

It's not even a show of security. It's designed to make you afraid and to demonstrate that you are always at the mercy of "authority" for your rights.

If Metro was really interested in your safety, they would deal with the mechanical issues which are about 100 times more likely to injure you than a terrorist.

Or, if you really believe terrorists are that big a threat, having more officers on the platforms, explosive sniffing dogs, etc... would work significantly better than allowing a terrorist to see that searches were going on and leaving.

The benefit to more officers on the platforms would also be that they could fight the crime that happens every day in Metro, rather than some imaginary threat.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | December 21, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

I understand that people are upset, but I do think a little perspective is necessary. In Boston, we've had this practice for at least a couple of years- I am personally subjected to a search 1-2x/month. They are conducted by our transit police who randomly select people to search when a coordinated search is underway at that station. To my frustration, I have definitely missed trains for the searches, although the officers do try to get you through quickly. Besides terrorism, the thought is the searches help deter people from bringing weapons onto trains, and such activity is not infrequent on the "T" (officers ride trains too). How effective the searches are, I don't know, but I imagine they are pleased with the results to keep up the practice so long.

Posted by: kd291 | December 21, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

A couple of your readers questioned the roles between Metro and the TSA, and the difference between this and screening at the airport.

First, the difference with the airport screening is that there is a Federal law requiring the passengers to submit prior to entering the "sterile area" of an airport and/or board an aircraft.

Title 49 CFR, Part 1540, Section 1540.107
(a) No individual may enter a sterile area or board an aircraft without submitting to the screening and inspection of his or her person and accessible property in accordance with the procedures being applied to control access to that area or aircraft under this subchapter.

It's been a few years since I left the TSA, but at that time, there was no other Federal law requiring an individual to undergo screening by the TSA for any other type of transportation. I couldn't find anything today that changes that.

Now for the role between the Metro and TSA. When I was there what would be done is to coordinate with the responsible transportation mode (Rail, Bus, Ferry) and have one of their representatives present with the TSA, who possessed the authority to deny boarding if a passenger refused.

But what prohibits terrorists from taking another hour to find another stop where there is no screening? This doesn't "introduce an element of unpredictability to disrupt potential terrorist planning activities" as advertised by the TSA with their Visible Intermodel Prevention and Response "VIPR" program. The TSA'S first attempt to introduce themselves into the other modes of transportation was to assemble and deploy VIPR teams. See their website. They're really proud of these guys wearing raid jackets standing around being seen.

Also within Title 49 is a published list of those items that are considered "prohibited" and "illegal". A box cutter is prohibited, a gun is illegal. Again, not knowing the local ordinances or that of the metro, there is no Federal prohibition for carrying a gun on the metro and the TSA could not take enforcement action against a passenger. The TSA screener would have to refer the situationn to the local law enforcement, where at the airport, the TSA could take civil or criminal action. Penalties for carrying a gun and not declaring it prior to screening could subject a person up to $25,000.00. Usally, they issue a Notice of Violation (NOV)for $2,000 to $5,000 depending on all the circumstances.

I was never opposed to the idea, but felt they were far from being legally appropriate. For example, from what I can tell, they haven't amended any laws by posting within the Federal Register a Notice of Proposed Rule Making to advise passengers they'll be required to be screened and what is prohibited and what is illegal.

Posted by: Use2B | December 21, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I'm fairly certain more people have died or been injured on Metro because of equipment failures than they have from terrorist attacks.I'd feel safer if elevator lights worked on a regular basis so when I get home after dark I wouldn't have to ride to a top floor in complete darkness. I'd feel safer if metro elevators did not make loud crunching noises when they reached street level. I'd feel safer if all the lamp posts in the outside parking lots worked or if there were more officers riding the trains or if I thought that equipment was being regularly maintained. I don't feel safer with bag checks.

Posted by: leslie21 | December 22, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Essential liberty: to be free from unreasonable searches.

Attributed to Benj. Franklin:

* They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.
He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.
He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.
People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.
If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both.
Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
He who gives up freedom for safety deserves neither.
Those who would trade in their freedom for their protection deserve neither.
Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.

Posted by: othergolden | December 22, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

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