To most riders, WMATA’s bag search policy is intuitively foolish. But, as statements at recent Riders’ Advisory Council meetings make clear, within the mindset of the Metro Transit Police (MTPD), they’re entirely logical. This is another example of how silos inside WMATA lead to bad decisions.
Last night, Chief Taborn echoed the statements of his underlings from Monday: Taborn said that this program is one of many tools in the police’s toolbox, and they feel they have to do “everything” for security.
In other words, it’s not his job to balance this program against others, or against the costs outside the police department. For example, if this undermines rider support for Metro which make other initiatives more difficult, that’s not his problem. If it draws expensive lawsuits which sap WMATA’s budget, it’s not his problem.
However, if it takes police away from patrolling platforms, and as a result someone gets hurt or killed by regular non-terrorist thugs, that should be Taborn’s problem. But it’s not his job to consider this program in light of the bigger picture.
That’s Richard Sarles’ job, and Sarles has fallen down on this job. Sarles should not have authorized moving forward on a program whose value is extremely dubious, given other public safety needs and other potential drawbacks. Perhaps any security program, no matter what its value, is a good idea to Taborn, but someone higher up in the chain needs to intervene and say that such a controversial and intrusive program isn’t worth the huge range of costs.
The same issue emerged with the 7000-series railcars. The people in charge of the railcars didn’t want to consider longitudinal seating (where people sit with their back to the wall) because it might be a little bit less safe. However, they could not quantify this at all.
Assuming a train crashes into another, which it shouldn’t since WMATA ought to fix the signals, then maybe — maybe — someone might get thrown a little farther down the car than they might have otherwise, which could possibly lead to a little bit more harm. Or something.
But what is the chance someone would fall off a platform that wouldn’t be so overcrowded if cars had more capacity? Who knows? That’s not the 7000 Series designers’ problem.
On Monday, RAC member Carol Carter Walker also asked whether MTPD had done any outreach to the community or civil liberties groups before instituting the program. Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik seemed baffled by the suggestion that they should work with anyone outside MTPD as opposed to simply “notifying” the Board, riders, and others that the searches were going to happen. They certainly didn’t talk to the RAC.
Jay Marks of DC said in his comments, “I don’t have any confidence that the Metro Board will listen to [the RAC] either, but thanks for trying.” Based on Board Chairman Peter Benjamin’s comments to Dr. Gridlock, there’s reason to worry the Board may not stand up for liberty. If they don’t, they’re doing a lot of harm to the agency they represent.
It’s always politically tough for elected or appointed officials to stand up in the face of comments like, “If only one person’s life is saved, then this program is worth it.” That’s the kind of thinking that is leading the Board to put every safety measure, no matter how questionable in value, above every other kind of repair the system needs, or Sarles to put this bag search program above all other public safety priorities.
There’s an easier way out. The Board should agree to hold a public hearing on this issue and members should express their concerns about the program in a meeting. Then, Sarles, who’s going to leave really soon anyway, should quietly stop performing the searches, just as they started them with little notice. Everyone can claim to still be protecting safety, and WMATA can reverse a very bad decision.