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Posted at 11:40 AM ET, 01/ 4/2011

Metro can't sell the searches

By Robert Thomson

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.

By Robert Thomson  | January 4, 2011; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  Metro, Transportation Politics  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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Metro Transit Police would do well to focus LESS resources on the terrorist attack that hasn't happened (and may never happen) and focus MORE resources on the crimes and violations and that are happening every day in the system (rail and bus).

Posted by: ceebee2 | January 4, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

"The officers briefly described the program -- calling it a "success" so far"

Normally success is declared when a program meets some of its interim or final goals or objectives. So did anyone ask the officers declaring success exactly which of the program's goals or objectives have been met so far, and if so for some specific examples or instances of how the goal or objective has been met? If the goal of the program is to deter terrorists, then if it's a success so far they must have an example of how some terrorist has been deterred. Otherwise, how do they know it's a success? Or is the goal perhaps something else, say to annoy passengers? They have clearly achieved that goal.

Posted by: FeelWood | January 4, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: FeelWood, the definition of success was very interesting. Transit police have no idea whether they prevented a terrorist attack. That's fair. You wouldn't expect them too. One of the officers last night pointed out that police may prevent a crime from occurring just by standing in uniform at the corner of, say, Seventh and H streets.

So how could they measure success? Basically, they say, the inspection program has gone off without a hitch at five stations. About 100 people were checked on two days, and nobody objected, the officers said.

That definition of success -- that nothing bad happened -- may be fine as a bureaucratic measure. But I think riders should feel free to apply their own standards as to what constitutes a successful security program.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | January 4, 2011 12:23 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Just another thought regarding the definition of "success." The police officers can define this as a "success" because they safely carried out their mission.

The riders have a right to debate the definition of the mission. We know we're being told to give up a traditional freedom to travel on the transit system. Are we willing to do that? What might we get in exchange for abandoning that freedom? Is it reasonable to make the exchange?

I think the police can't really answer that question for us. They have no idea whether any search so far has deterred a terrorist, and it's unlikely they will. At the same time, we shouldn't expect anyone who's job is security to recommend that we scale back a security program. They're more likely to tell us what more they can do.

We're the ones who have to say, "Enough. We think this particular thing isn't worth sacrificing the freedom to travel on transit.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | January 4, 2011 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Did anyone ask what the result of "objecting" would be? Is it like the airport, where you are then searched anyway, but then can't get on the train?

Perhaps no one objected because it would be pointless, per the above. Or, the sheeple simply comply as rights and liberties are slowly stripped away.

One of the interesting things about "security theater" is that you can end up creating an equally inviting target - the security queues and crowds themselves.

Posted by: nocando | January 4, 2011 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I define success as "preventing terrorist attacks." By that definition, the bag search program cannot ever achieve success because it is a failure by design.

In order to pass constitution muster, the bag searches must be optional. When the searches are optional, any mildly-clued-in terrorist would simply refuse the search and try again later.

This program is a complete waste of resources and a complete waste of transit-riders' time. Why can't Metro divert the resources this program consumes into more bathrooms so the train operators don't need to urinate on the tracks? Or maybe toward some train doors that operate correctly? Or some train switches that work?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | January 4, 2011 2:51 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: yes, nocando, people at the Riders' Advisory Council meeting did ask about the consequences of objecting. (The police say no one has so far.)

The officers' response was a bit complicated. A person who objects to the search can turn around and go back to his or her car and leave the bag there. Then the rider can return to the station and enter.

What if you didn't come by car? Well, then you're out of luck. If the police spot you trying to enter the transit system, they're going to block you and probably question you. (Many people noted that it's pretty easy to re-enter the system at another station or hop on a bus, especially if you're in downtown DC where the stations are close together.)

If you walk onto the station mezzanine with your bag, see that the police have set up a check point and turn around, it's unclear what's going to happen. Last night, the officers made it pretty clear that the police conducting the inspection aren't the only law enforcement personnel around the station entrance.

The officers last night wouldn't confirm what would happen next, but it was pretty clear that of security officers saw a person turn around, they might stop and question that person.

We all talk about how unlikely it is that a terrorist is going to submit to a bag check. The police know that, too. That's not really the idea behind the checkpoints.

The police think they're going to create a hubbub at the station entrance. Seeing the officers and the security table, a terrorist would get spooked, show fear and turn away. Security officers near the station entrance could spot that and pursue the suspect.

At that point, and for the first time in this process, they've got a real suspect, a person who is acting suspiciously.

But a big problem for me is that until that time, the checkpoint system makes every rider a suspect.

Also, some average riders are going to read the description I just gave and feel like they've got to start practicing their innocent look. This shouldn't be.

The police tell us they have other ways of protecting us. They call it a layered approach to security. These police checkpoints are a layer too far.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | January 4, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Violating the Constitutional rights of the ridership is not a success, its a failure and caving in to the culture of fear.

Screw the Board, I can't wait to suit them in their individual capacities for failing to do their job, allowing these violations, and exposing the system to further financial risk from lawsuits that are sure to result in serious judgments.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | January 4, 2011 4:30 PM | Report abuse


Unrelated to this article on July 27, 2010 Metro issued a press release that they had "began work simultaneously, on a real-time 24/7, automatic track circuit monitoring system inclusive of loss of shunt, which is scheduled to be implemented in December 2010." As I had developed a patented system US 7,050,890 that does this I was wondering if Metro did what was scheduled and if so could you report on it?

Thank you,

Ron Tolmei

Posted by: rtolmei | January 4, 2011 6:44 PM | Report abuse

"but it was pretty clear that of security officers saw a person turn around, they might stop and question that person."

Great. So if I come into a station that happens to have a check-point and turn around I am going to be questioned? I do this frequently actually. See all the reasons for my "suspicious behavior" below:

I walk into a station and head to a fare machine. Add value to my smartrip using a credit card, then leave the station to catch a bus.

I walk into a station and see the next train is 20+ minutes away. I leave to either catch a bus instead, grab a bite to eat, a drink, run to the ATM, etc.

I walk into a station and get a text from a friend changing our meeting location. I leave because I no longer need to take the train.

I walk into a station and realize I left something at work/home/the restaurant. I leave and come back after I have retrieved my item.

I walk into a station see the train is 8 minutes away and decide I have enough time to go back up and get a newspaper before entering the system.

I walk into a station to meet a friend. Don't see them inside so I leave to check outside and make sure I didn't miss them.

I walk into a station to meet a friend. Friend and I both leave the station.

I could go on, but I think you get my point.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | January 5, 2011 11:36 AM | Report abuse

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