Metro Should Bag the Searches
Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said Monday that Metro police will conduct random inspections inside people's bags.
"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.
October 28, 2008; 6:25 AM ET
Categories: Commuting , Metro , Transportation Politics
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