Metro can't sell the searches
On Dec. 16, Richard Sarles, the interim general manager of Metro, informed the Metro board that the transit authority would fundamentally change its relationship with hundreds of thousands of people who use the trains and buses every day.
"This afternoon," he told the board, "we will notify our customers that Metro transit police will begin random inspections of carry-on items in the coming days. While there is no specific or credible threat to the system at this time, this inspection program is part of our practice of varying our security posture and adds another type of visible protection on our system. ...
"Chief [Michael] Taborn has ensured that this program will minimize inconvenience to riders. The program is based on similar successful law enforcement programs used routinely on transit systems in the New York, New Jersey and Boston areas. Inspections will be brief and are typically non-intrusive, as police will randomly select bags or packages to check for hazardous materials using ionization technology, as well as K-9 units trained to detect explosive material. Carry on items will generally not be opened and physically inspected, unless the equipment indicates a need for further inspection.
Thus, Sarles informed his bosses that the "customers" who have taken so much from the transit authority have one more indignity to suffer: Henceforth, they would be considered a threat to the system. Police would randomly select some of them to prove their innocence.
What did the board members say at the end of this announcement? Though board members often question the transit staff on minute details about revenues, expenditures and real estate, they consider themselves a policy-making body.
Yet on this policy, they had nothing to say. They didn't even ask what "ionization technology" is. (It's the chemical-detection swab the police use on your property after they've brought you over to the inspection table.)
Board Chairman Peter Benjamin said the board members had no advance notice that the police were about to impose this policy on riders. "We learned of it at the same time the public did," he told me last night. He added that the board got its briefing back in 2008, when Chief Taborn first proposed searching would-be riders before they entered the system.
They raised concerns about that program -- as did many riders -- and asked the chief and then-general manager John B. Catoe Jr. to revisit the initiative, but they did not require the chief and GM to come back to the board before launching whatever revised program they came up with, Benjamin said.
So having Sarles and Taborn declare this new passenger inspection program to be in effect on Dec. 16, 2010, "is not inconsistent" with the board's 2008 direction, Benjamin said. He added that since Dec. 16, he's heard no request from a board member to revisit the issue.
This is a serious stumble on the part of the board, and can serve as a prime example of why many people think the governance of the transit authority needs an overhaul.
Even many who support the inspection program will recognize this: The transit authority made no effort to sell this fundamental policy change to the public. The transit authority didn't even discuss it with riders, or with the Riders' Advisory Council before imposing it.
Wouldn't the memory of the public reaction in 2008 have suggested to even one Metro leader that some public discussion was in order? Couldn't anyone in charge raise even one question on behalf of the riders?
And how were the riders to be informed that they would be subject to inspection? This is what Sarles said on Dec. 16:
"Customer notices will be distributed electronically this afternoon and detailed information about the program will be available on our Web site. In addition, take-one cards will be distributed at major locations across the system beginning tomorrow. Also, a news release is being sent out to the media, and we are distributing the information through our social network."
When we want your opinion, we'll hand you a brochure.
The Monday night public meeting of the Metro Riders' Advisory Council began to redress this one-sided relationship between the transit authority and the riders on the important issue of transit security. Read The Post story by Ann Scott Tyson.
Benjamin was there to listen -- he even helped set up chairs for the crowd of about 100 -- but I saw no other board members. If they look at a transcript, they'll find more anger from more riders than the heard at most hearings on last year's big fare increases.
This testimony was typical: "My name is Nicole, I live in Virginia and ride the Metro every day."
"This is a waste of time," she said of the police checkpoints. "This doesn't make me feel any safer ... Metro needs to spend its time and money on making sure a person with bad intentions doesn't enter the system."
While angry about the policy, many of the speakers voice respect and support for the transit police officers, including Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik and Capt. Kevin Gaddis who showed courtesy and grace while the riders pounded away at the program. The officers briefly described the program -- calling it a "success" so far -- and answered questions from the riders and the Riders Advisory Council.
But these are police officers, not policy makers. And so far, they are the only representatives of the transit authority to address any of the many concerns and doubts raised by riders.
A theme among many speakers: We're concerned about our security when we ride. We're also concerned about issues that range from fundamental civil liberties down to showing up at work on time. Get us involved in working out a program that can defend all those goals.
So far, no one in the transit authority's leadership has done that.
| January 4, 2011; 11:40 AM ET
Categories: Metro, Transportation Politics | Tags: Dr. Gridlock
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