Photo by waltarrrrr on Flickr.

Over 100 people packed a hearing room at WMATA headquarters last night for a Riders’ Advisory Council meeting about the random bag searches Metro instituted in December. Police representatives explained the basic facts of the program in the face of over 30 often-impassioned arguments against the program.

As Bob “Dr. Gridlock” Thomson tweeted, the crowd exceeded that of any RAC meeting in recent memory and even the size of crowds at most Metro fare hike hearings.

One notable absence, as pointed out by DC RAC member Carol Carter Walker, was Police Chief Michael Taborn. Neither he nor interim-GM Richard Sarles attended the meeting, though it had been scheduled fairly quickly just before the holiday break.

Over 30 riders spoke during the public comment session. Only one person made any statements in support of the bag search policy, while the rest opposed it, often strongly. Comments opposing the searches ran the gamut, from drawing on the ideals of liberty to worrying about racial profiling to questioning the effectiveness of this program.

One of the more eloquent speakers was a colonel in the United States Air Force. He said of the searches, “Regardless of whether [they’re] constitutional, [they’re] not right… If we give up liberty for security, we dishonor the sacrifice” of those who have died to protect this country.

Johnny Barnes from ACLU of the Nation’s Capital said, “We can be safe and free, but we are not safe if we are not free.” Sue Udry from Defending Dissent noted that FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms” includes “freedom from fear,” and said that this program fosters an “atmosphere of fear.”

Others made less philosophical but more practical arguments. Andy Hunt argued that if he can walk 10 blocks to avoid a “peak of the peak” fare, then a terrorist certainly could do so. Apparently, quite a few people agree. A petition opposing the searches from the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition has been signed by over 600 people, evenly split between Maryland, Virginia, and the District.

Representatives of Metro Transit Police (MTPD), though, weren’t fazed by the opposition. Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik gave a very brief presentation of the program without addressing concerns around effectiveness or the fear of an ever-encroaching police state.

In fact, when asked if MTPD would ever voluntarily discontinue the program, Pavlik said that would happen “when the world changes.” For many in the audience and for many at MTPD, I expect, that means never.

MTPD Captain Kevin Gaddis noted that of the 55 comments Metro had received regarding this topic through their online comment system, most were supportive of the policy.

MTPD has run 5 station bag checks and screened approximately 100 riders. Only one bag tested positive, and the follow-up X-ray screening cleared that person’s bag. No one has declined to be screened, although if someone left before encountering an officer, they wouldn’t have been counted.

Gaddis characterized each of these sessions as “successful.” When pressed, he clarified that “successful” means that the officers completed the screening with a minimum of passenger delay, no incidents occurred, and they made a “show of force” against terrorism.

Whether any terrorists were deterred, the officers couldn’t say, nor whether this program has been effective in any other cities.

Searchees are selected at random by counting bags “larger than a typical woman’s purse,” and stopping the rider representing a predetermined number without respect to the characteristics of theat rider. No one is exempt from the searches, including children and Metro employees.

Anyone can decline to be screened, though they will not be allowed to board the train with the bag. If someone refuses a bag search, they will be permitted to “leave the bag in their car” and then board the train. When pressed about riders who arrive on foot, bicycle, or by bus and would otherwise be stranded, Pavlik agreed that riders would indeed be permitted to board a Metrobus with the bag in question.

On the other hand, Pavlik said that they could use “other means” if someone refuses to have their bag searched and leaves. They would not elaborate on what these “other means” were, and specifically avoided addressing whether these means included following or questioning search refusers.

If someone is selected for a random search and elects to allow the screening, the exterior of their bag will be examined for explosive residue. This search is only for explosives. However, if the sensor detects the residue, the officers will run the bag through an X-ray machine. If they see anything suspicious, they could open the bag, and if they find anything illegal in the second round of screening, whether explosive or not, the rider could be charged.

MTPD considers this program to come at “no cost” to the agency. The officers used for these screenings are funded through a $26 million, multi-year antiterrorism grant from the TSA. The grant funds the officers’ salaries, equipment, and training. Only certain programs qualify, though that doesn’t necessarily have to include random bag searches. One requirement of the grant is “visibility”, which MTPD has fulfilled in the past through major “shows of force” at selected stations.

Of course, as Pavlik admitted, these officers could perform for other tasks in the system were they not screening bags. But the police force seems unable to recognize the concept of resource prioritization. Repeatedly, RAC members asked whether this was a wise use of resources. The MTPD representatives only responded that a “layered approach” was ideal, and that no one approach was best.

If bag searches take resources away from something known to be effective, that’s okay with MTPD, because it means better layering. But that’s a recipe for bad policy. They also seemed unconcerned that this particular layer, even with its indeterminate value, could potentially run afoul of civil liberties and undermine public support for Metro.

As far as delay is concerned, the Transit Police only seem concerned that in general the flow through the station is unimpeded. They characterized the delay to individuals as only approximately 20 seconds, but later revealed that they only count the time from when the bag “hits the table”. The time when a rider is pulled aside, spoken with, or a delay resulting from a missed train or connection is not considered.

Several members of the audience pointed out even a 30 second check can result in a “cascading effect” on riders. Missing one train might mean missing an hourly bus, and an hour in the extreme cold or summer heat is an added burden to Metro’s valued customers.

With respect to the searches themselves, the Transit Police report that they are not retaining any personal data from passengers who undergo screening. Records are kept regarding how many searches are done, how long they take, and at which stations they occur.

Proposals to run bag searches came up in 2005 and 2008, but following public pushback and concerns from the WMATA Board, the previous GMs and police chiefs decided not to move ahead. This time, Interim GM Sarles and Chief Taborn gave their approval with only the briefest of notifications to the Board.

I’m glad the Metro Transit Police Department is trying to make our system more secure. But this particular application, even if it’s only one layer, is an inefficient and ineffective use of resources. It erodes personal liberties and public support for Metro. The Board should step in to stop the program.

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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.