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Metro Should Bag the Searches

Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said Monday that Metro police will conduct random inspections inside people's bags.

Metro search sign.gif Transit authority's warning to travelers.

"If the initiative we are announcing today does nothing more than remind us all that there are people in the world who have vowed to do us harm, and that vigilance is the key to defeating them, then this program will have succeeded," he said in a statement.

That big hole in the side of the Pentagon and the sight of thousands of our fellow workers fleeing their offices on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was enough reminder for a lifetime that there are people who want to harm us. Why, suddenly, is it a good idea to assist our memories by peering into our property?

About half the letters of complaint I get each week concern Metro. Washingtonians by the scores complain about eating and drinking on the trains, about garbled announcements on the loud speakers, about the handholds being too high and far away for riders to grab. They think police and school officials should control rowdy behavior after class. They think the trains break down too often.

But the constituency for random, occasional property searches has yet to be heard from. In the seven years since we were attacked, the transit authority has not explained or even prominently discussed why its personnel must search riders to protect us. (Chief Taborn will be online at 1:30 p.m. today to discuss the program.)

This isn't like an airport screening, to which 100 percent of passengers are subjected. The thoroughness of the airport screening makes it very effective as a security measure. The effectiveness of the deterrent, plus the demonstrated consequences of failure, created broad public understanding that the security searches were reasonable.

Because there was so little discussion about the idea before Metro announced that it was doing it, many people expressed confusion and concern about the details during my online discussion Monday.

Here are a few of the frequently asked questions and what Metro says about them:

Who will do the inspections?
A team transit officers has been trained in conflict management, suicide bomber recognition, legal aspects of security inspection points, indicators of terrorist activity, behavioral assessments and explosive ordinance detection and disposal.

How will the searches be conducted?
The transit police will pick a station and deploy a group of officers. Outside the fare gates or before a bus rider reaches the farebox, the officers will stop people based on some preset formula, such as every 15th person. (This avoids profiling.) The person will be asked to submit his or her bag to a seach. People who refuse will not be allowed to enter the transit system. People who accept will be taken aside and asked to open a bag.

An officer will visually inspect the contents. The inspection will be limited to searching for explosives and other items that may be harmful. If an explosive-detecting dog is there, the would-be rider may be asked to let the dog sniff the bag. If the dog signals that explosives are present, the officers can search the item.

What if they find something illegal?
They can arrest you.

Will this delay people?
It certainly will delay people picked for the searches. The time it takes to inspect a bag will depend on the size of the bag. In general, it should take no more than 15 seconds to inspect an item such as a backpack or briefcase. Metro thinks you probably won't be late for work or an appointment.

Are the searches legal?
Metro says that the program is like New York's, which challenged and upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The decision was called MacWade v. Kelly.

You can read the full text of Metro's bag search announcement here.

By Robert Thomson  |  October 28, 2008; 6:25 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting , Metro , Transportation Politics  
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I really hope people oppose this and Metro drops the policy. We should be encouraging people to use mass transit, not throwing up obstacles and reminding people why they prefer their cars.

The random-selection provides perfect cover racial profiling. Make no mistake, the officer will pull aside anyone they want under this policy; they can claim they miscounted, or can just claim the person was suspicious.

Our transportation system is highly congested, espeically our roads. But this will only increase congestion and delays in the metro system as well. They can't make the trains run on time, or more frequently, but they can waste money on this.

All a terrorist has to do is go to the next metro stop. This is a completely ineffective security measure that inconvieninces a lot of people and disregards the rights of everybody.

Posted by: jlm101514 | October 28, 2008 8:34 AM | Report abuse

I encourage everyone to write into to metro to complain about this. Go to and then go to contact us where there is an online form to fill out.

I just sent them this:

I just read the article in the Washington Post this morning about the bag searching on Metrorail. This new procedure stinks and its a complete violation of my civil liberties. What right does Metro have to search my bags? And if I refuse you deny me boarding onto the train? It is not Metro's right to deny me boarding because I refuse to have my bag searched. If I'm falling down drunk, then I'd understand being denied boarding, but refusing to have my bag searched? This will do nothing to safeguard Metrorail at all. You seem to forget that most people that blow things up fasten explosives to their bodies, not put them in their briefcases. I hope I am not the only one writing in and complaining about this ridiculous new policy. Please revisit this new policy to check how really sound and prudent it is. Upon second examination, plus the onslaught of rider complaints, I expect you'll revoke this stupid procedure.

Posted by: italiaitalia | October 28, 2008 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Great. Now Metro is going to play TSA, and nobody's going to know what might possibly be confiscated until it's taken.

It'd be nice if Metro actually worked on getting people from one place to another in a timely manner for a change.

Posted by: yeah-right | October 28, 2008 8:48 AM | Report abuse

I hear of people who won't take Metro while this policy is in force. Me, I have no choice. I wish I had an alternative. If I did, I would not ride the Metro at all. The US is fast becoming, "papers please", like the good old Soviet Union of the past.

Posted by: dkf747 | October 28, 2008 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Right, the searches will be completely random. Just every 17th person. No profiling at all.

That's why the Transit Police officers have been specially trained in "suicide bomber recognition," "indicators of terrorist activity," and "behavioral assessments."

Posted by: mquad | October 28, 2008 9:31 AM | Report abuse

As a regular Metro rider with my very own Smart card, I have an opinion on this bag search - it is stupid! I like riding the Metro even though I could drive back and forth to work more quickly and easily.

I'm not looking forward to the night when I'm dead tired, my back and feet hurt, I'm lugging my purse, computer bag and tote bag and some MetroCop wants to search all of the above. It will not be pretty for anyone involved.

Then when tourist season arrives....this is going to be ugly. Metro is out of their tiny little minds.

Posted by: lkop56 | October 28, 2008 9:33 AM | Report abuse

This is a colossal waste of resources that would be better spent on Metrorail's failing infrastructure. Wouldn't this money be better spent fixing the rail car doors?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 28, 2008 10:12 AM | Report abuse

There is no way I will be complying with these illegal and unconstitutional searches.

I am a federal attorney and I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. I assume these officers did too.

The Fourth Amendment says no unreasonable searches and seizures are allowed. A random bag search is both. It is a temporary seizure of the person and a warrantless and suspicionless search. The random aspect, not screening every passenger creates a 14th Amendment Equal protection problem as well.

I will not comply. I would rather face arrest and disbarment than be an accomplice in the subversion of the Constitution I am sworn to protect.

Posted by: AngryLiberal | October 28, 2008 10:16 AM | Report abuse

What a waste of resources. The only way this could be valuable is if Metro searches suspicious looking people. But of course, Metro would not search actually suspicious people, but rather people that they pick out for the wrong reasons.

Posted by: ah___ | October 28, 2008 10:21 AM | Report abuse

On Metro's home page, they've been busily adding new announcements all morning so that the bag-search announcement moves farther and farther down the page!

Posted by: yeah-right | October 28, 2008 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock, in your chat, you noted that, "Metro says it won't profile people. It will just pick people at random based on some PREARRANGED FORMULA, like stopping every 16th person." You also noted that Metro says "it's doing these random searches of your property to deter terrorist attacks by increasing the potential for detecting explosives or other hazardous material and to disrupt the ability of terrorists to DISCERN A PATTERN in security measures." (Emphases mine.)

Now look here, I may be a redneck and all, not too educated, but Metro's use of a formula, say every 16th person, is likely to be easily observable and DISCERNIBLE by even a layperson who takes a minute to pay attention, let alone a would-be terrorist. Even if that formula changes daily, it is still likely to be used consistently for the entire shift by a specific person. People are creatures of habit. So spend 10 minutes watching and counting, and another 10 verifying the pattern you've deduced is correct and you, as a potential terrorist, are in the clear, especially if you have a scout in place. Does Metro think terrorists are stupid? Does Metro THINK at all???? Shucks, even my 8th grade diploma has me figurin' out the loopholes in their strategy. What a waste of resources and an untenable request for Americans to give up rights incrementally and painlessly yet again.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | October 28, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

The worst thing about this is it won't work.

If you set up a perimeter that requires search (think Airport or White House) then, yes, that will send terrorists to a softer target.

But what would a terrorist do when asked to consent to a search. Some might - drug dealers do it sometimes, but most will say "no way" walk out and go to another station.

Bomb sniffing dogs - that would work. But this - this is just an expensive and invasive dog and pony show. It's a CYA move and nothing more.

Posted by: cranor | October 28, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Much like the TSA - it's security theater.

Posted by: nocando | October 28, 2008 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Yep true security theater. Anybody can easily figure out how to still do their terrorist act with these searches in place.

Basically people are being inconvenienced at best and losing their constitutional rights at worst for absolutely no gain in increased safety or security. Its the worst possible program that could be implemented.

Posted by: Tmoney02 | October 28, 2008 12:41 PM | Report abuse

If they man one station at a time and do 40 hours per week of inspection and search 1 in 10 people, odds of someone being asked are 0.0375%

If you assume that 2 terrorists plan randomly access stations during one week. Metro would have to check 1 in 5 people at 40 stations 80 hours per week to get to a 1% chance of asking both to submit to inspection. What are the odd that both are that stupid?

Posted by: crete | October 28, 2008 2:13 PM | Report abuse

So if I refuse a search and am turned away from the station, can I then just come back after I have seen 5 people enter the station and try to enter again? If they pick me out again obviously they are not sticking to their "every 16th or 17th person" rule and I could claim they are profiling me. ACLU is going to have a field day with this one.

I for one will refuse this illegal search every time. Please fight for your right to the 4th Amendment.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | October 28, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Oh, sorry. That quote is Benjamin Franklin.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | October 28, 2008 2:19 PM | Report abuse

The "search every 17th passenger" tactic is so obviously ineffective in its purported intent, you have to wonder what the authorities REAL intent is.

I suggest the real motivations are this:

1. Although ineffective, it shows that government is "doing something". Because every bureaucrat and politician knows that being accused of "doing nothing" is far worse than merely being accused of doing something for show.

2. These initial token searches train the populace to accept that they are subject to "inspection" when they are out in public. Once the populace's expectation of privacy has been adjusted downward (i.e., when being searched to enter Metro becomes "the new normal"), more intrusive searches will be more readily accepted.

This is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

But it's not too late to stop it. If EVERYONE refuses these ridiculous searches, they will go away. So just say NO. Do not consent. Walk to the next station, use another entrance, whatever. DO NOT ALLOW THIS TO BECOME "THE NEW NORMAL." Resist while the price of resistance is low. Because it only gets worse from here.

Posted by: DupontJay | October 28, 2008 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Washington commuters have been bringing too many bags into the system. Suitcases with wheels are the worst offender, they cause huge traffic jams especially on the escalators and getting into and around the metro cars. What on earth are these people carrying around? These are not grocery bags or baby bags.

If we were a truly capitalist country then we would charge people who bring oversized bags onto the system. Make metro run better, and prohibit large size bags and rolling suitcases.

If you are trying to get to the airport and you have a big bag, take another mode of transport. If you can afford a $200+ airline ticket you can afford a $20 cab ride!

Posted by: obviousNESS | October 28, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

"If you are trying to get to the airport and you have a big bag, take another mode of transport. If you can afford a $200+ airline ticket you can afford a $20 cab ride!"

Hmm guess you must be against Metro to Dulles then. A cab ride for me to get to National is much more than $20 (Rockville to Arlington). The metro ride is $4.50 during rush and $2.35 during non-rush. Yeah a whole lot cheaper. Also cheaper for me to get to Union Station and then take the MARC up to BWI. Same thing goes when I'm taking Amtrak, I'm going to take the metro there. While I do try to go to the airport during non-rush hour times, sometimes this cannot be avoided. It's a PUBLIC transportation system and if you don't like what people may choose to transport on it, then stop taking it. And by you not taking metro there will be plenty of room for my bag. Look problem solved!

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | October 28, 2008 4:30 PM | Report abuse

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