Photo by cyberenviro.org on Flickr.

This morning, the Metro Transit Police began conducting the system’s first random bag checks. These inspections are couched in the language of security, but they actually make the system less safe.

Passengers boarding during the morning rush at Braddock Road and College Park faced these screenings. The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock reported that one man’s check took 8 minutes, and yet nothing threatening was found.

People have been objecting to these random bag checks on a variety of grounds. The ACLU says that they infringe on civil liberties. Dr. Gridlock disputed the argument that they are a “necessary evil,” writing that “To be a necessary evil, a thing must be both necessary and evil,” and that this policy is only the latter, not the former. Even Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton thinks they’re ineffective.

The WMATA Riders Advisory Council will be holding a meeting on this policy on January 3rd, 6:30 pm at WMATA HQ, where you can voice your opinions.

Regardless of how you feel about personal liberties or the Fourth Amendment, there are several reasons you should oppose these screenings. Any one of these should be enough to give you pause.

The bag checks do nothing to secure the Metro system. If this morning is any indication of Metro’s plans for screenings, they’ll take place only at a few stations at any given time, probably less than 5 of Metro’s 86 stations. They may even be restricted to rush hours. This morning’s checks appear to have ended by 8:45, according to news reports.

Most importantly, anyone can refuse the checks and still be allowed to board a train or bus. If you don’t want to be screened for whatever reason, all you have to do is tell the officer that you don’t want to be screened. You won’t be permitted to enter that station with your bag, but you will be permitted to enter the system elsewhere.

At a place like Vienna, that might be a challenge for a terrorist without a car. But at any of the downtown stations, or in other close-in neighborhoods, it’s a short walk to another station. And Metrobuses tend to provide a link between stations, as well.

One could easily conceive of a terrorist deciding not to be screened at a station like Farragut North simply walking to Farragut West and boarding a train there.

Or to think of it another way, imagine that prior to September 11, there was no airport security. Afterwards, they put security in place at Boston Logan, Newark, and Washington Dulles only. It would still be easy for a terrorist to hijack a plane. All they’d need to do is start their journey from a different airport. Metro’s permeable and brief security barriers will do nothing to stop even a moderately determined terrorist.

They’re easy to avoid. Because these checks are considered outrageous by many people and because of the prevalence of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, it’s easy to determine ahead of time where these checks are happening.

A terrorist could easily check Twitter (as UnsuckDCMetro pointed out this morning), as can anyone else wishing to avoid the hassle.

They draw resources from real crime prevention. The Metro Transit Police Department is an asset to this region. I respect their officers for what they do to keep Metro safe.

But they have limited resources. The MTPD has only 423 sworn officers, certainly a small force for an agency spread across 3 “states”, 86 stations, and hundreds of miles of bus lines.

Metro is not increasing the size of the Police Department as a part of these random bag checks. And that means that officers that otherwise would have been riding trains and buses, circling parking lots, or walking platforms are being pulled away from those duties.

There have been some high-profile crimes on Metro lately. In August, a brawl erupted at L’Enfant Plaza that injured 4, and reportedly involved 70 people. Metro Police officers were able to respond from Gallery Place, probably because the agency stations extra cops there to deal with unruly teenagers. What would have happened, however, if those officers had been assigned to Dupont Circle to do random bag checks?

Are these checks worth it if even one old lady gets mugged because an officer who otherwise would have been on her train was scanning bags elsewhere? How many iPhone thefts is this security theater worth? How many teenage brawls?

We already know that MTPD response times are poor. Putting officers behind security checkpoints will only exacerbate that problem.

And that seems to be the case even if TSA personnel are stationed at the checkpoints, since it appears that Metro Transit officers will always be present at the bag checks, too.

The searches decrease the utility of transit. Traveling on Metro is not always easy. All too early in the evenings, train frequencies drop precipitously. Riders who have to transfer often spend more time standing around on platforms than they do riding on trains.

These bag checks mean that riders have to add more time into their schedules. While the checks can take at least 8 minutes, even a shorter one can mean missing a train. And if they’re only coming every 20 minutes, that is a significant delay to a rider. If it makes them miss the train which would connect with their hourly bus, it’s even worse.

These checks make riding transit less attractive for those who choose to take Metro. And it makes it less convenient for everyone, especially those who have no alternatives.

And that probably means that some people are going to get pushed into other modes, like driving. Lost revenue for Metro is bad, but worse is increased traffic on the Beltway, more pollution in our neighborhoods, and an increasing number of car crashes.

Metro’s fare increases have already driven transit ridership down, especially for short trips, where Capital Bikeshare, walking, Metrobuses, or taxis are increasingly taking up the slack. These bag checks give riders one more reason to abandon the system.

The checks could open WMATA up to lawsuits. While similar checks undertaken by the New York City MTA were upheld by the Second Circuit in MacWade v. Kelly, that does not immunize WMATA from lawsuits.

Metro operates in the Fourth Circuit and the DC Circuit. These checks are not a part of settled case law here, and it is very likely that someone who objects to these searches will sue WMATA.

And even if those circuits uphold the searches as in MacWade, there are other grounds for lawsuits. For instance, how does Metro inform riders that they can decline the search? If they do not, does that trigger a Fourth Amendment violation?

If the Transit Police are not informing each searchee that they can decline and if the searchee does not fully understand that, it would seem to bring up circumstances similar to those adjudicated in Miranda v. Arizona.

Regardless, for no apparent security benefit, WMATA would appear to be welcoming a court challenge. And as a taxpayer and daily rider, I find that troubling.

They infringe upon privacy rights. Americans are sensitive about their privacy. As well they should be. These checks do nothing to secure our transportation network, and yet they significantly infringe upon our right to privacy.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. These searches are far from reasonable, for the variety of reasons listed here.

Random inspections are often ineffective. And even if a terrorist went to a station that was being checked, he or she might not even get selected for screening.

Truly random screening means that the vast majority of those screened are innocent commuters. And those that look or act suspicious are not necessarily screened.

Profiling like that seems to violate case law in the Second Circuit. While WMATA is not located in the Second Circuit, the only place these checks have been tested is there, and WMATA has cited that case as justification.

In New York’s MacWade decision, the Second Circuit held that in order for the checks to be constitutional, they had to meet several conditions. One of those was that “police exercise no discretion in selecting whom to search, but rather employ a formula that ensures they do not arbitrarily exercise their authority” [emphasis mine].

That means that this approach checks hundreds of innocents and does not ensure that even suspicious individuals will get checked. That doesn’t sound like a good approach to safety.

Of course, officers can already search someone based on probable cause, but they don’t need checkpoints to do that. And using checkpoints to generate probable cause would seem to violate the spirit and letter of MacWade.

They create false perceptions in the traveling public. These searches create two false perceptions in riders, though not both in the same rider.

On the one hand, the mere fact that screenings are taking place creates an atmosphere of threat. It reminds people that they need to be suspicious and afraid. After all, a terrorist could be lurking just behind the next platform pylon.

But on the other hand, they also generate a false sense of security. Why should a rider be alert if people are screened before entering? Unfortunately, the ineffectiveness of this security measure means that transit riders are really no more secure than they were before the checks.

Treating customers with suspicion is not the way to win their patronage. As noted earlier, close to all of those being screened are going to be regular, innocent riders. Treating them like potential terrorists is insulting and inconvenient. And it’s unlikely to encourage them to ride transit again.

They show poor resource planning. The planning profession is often associated with urban planning, but it’s actually a much larger field. And it includes strategic and resource planning.

Planners are taught to use the Rational Planning Model to evaluate policy.

Essentially the model works like this:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Generate solutions
  3. Generate objective assessment criteria
  4. Choose the best alternative
  5. Implement chosen alternative
  6. Continuously evaluate outcomes and repeat model as necessary


It’s clear that the bag check policy was not subjected to that model.

Terrorism is a real threat. And it is a problem that needs to be addressed. But looking carefully at the approach which has been taken shows that it is riddled with holes, fails to address the core issues, and generates unintended consequences which may be larger threats to the agency than the original problem.

Metro and the Transit Police Department need to cease this program of bag checks immediately. They have angered the public, inconvenienced riders, and failed to solve or even reduce the terrorism problem.

These random bag checks make riding transit less safe. And as long as Metro wastes resources this way, it will continue to exhibit its general inability to deal effectively with the real problems of the agency.

You can speak up at the Riders’ Advisory Council meeting on Monday, January 3. It’s at 6:30 pm in the committee room at WMATA HQ, 600 5th Street, NW, left and then right after security. Any rider can speak, and the RAC has reached out to MTPD to see if someone can make a presentation and answer questions.

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.