Metro discusses security, freedom
Tom Downs, one of the new Metro board members, led an overdue discussion Thursday of issues stemming from the transit authority's decision in December to have transit police and the TSA inspect riders' property.
Most of the board members participated. They didn't resolve anything; there was no vote on any aspect of the rider inspection program. But they did talk about it at length, and in doing so, many acknowledged that the public has an interest in how it is protected from attacks in the public transit system.
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles and Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn joined the discussion, stating their reasons for creating the program and explaining why they believe the inspections do not violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.
Taborn noted that he has a small force of officers charged with doing a lot of protecting on trains and buses and in stations and parking areas. In his view, the passenger inspections extend the reach of that force. "The goal is to add unpredictability" about police presence and tactics that would have the effect of disrupting a potential terrorist plot, he said.
Taborn said the inspections are similar to what people submit to when they enter the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, or a museum on the National Mall. "This measure is no different from what you went through when you came into this building," he told the board members, referring to the bag X-ray machine and metal detector through which visitors to Metro headquarters pass themselves and their property.
Sarles noted that several other transit systems, including New York's, engage in similar activities, and that the inspections are "one additional piece of what we do here."
Among the issues he said he considered before allowing the chief to proceed with the tactic in December: people's constitutional right to be protected against government intrusions, a need to avoid queuing of riders at station entrances, the upcoming holiday season -- sometimes a draw for terrorists and the desire to introduce an unpredictable element in security that might disrupt a terrorist's plan.
"I made the decision to do this," he said.
To some board members, that's clearly good enough. They say they don't question decisions made in the name of security. Any aspect of personal liberty can be hurled into that bottomless pit, also named "They must know something we don't."
Other comments from board members got into more thought-provoking questions about how to protect the rights of riders while giving the general manager and the police chief enough flexibility to deal with a security crisis.
The December inspections were conducted in the absence of any credible or specific threat to the transit system, according to the police. Sarles noted Thursday that "this is not a static situation." Can the board frame a set of guidelines for ensuring riders' freedom that will cover all eventualities?
Most board members said they were at least willing to talk about these issues with riders. That in itself would be a step in the right direction. In guiding Thursday's discussion, Downs showed that it's possible for people with very different views on the reasonable boundaries of police power to have a reasonable conversation about it.
If the board could come up with policy guidelines on protecting people's rights during security operations, what would you want to see included?
| February 10, 2011; 4:15 PM ET
Categories: Metro, Transportation Politics | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, bag inspections
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