Thursday, October 30, 2008

Metro Riders Question Bag Search Program

My fellow Washingtonians had an opportunity to ask questions of the Metro Transit Police Chief about the new bag search policy via an on-line forum conducted by the Washington Post (Metro Transit's Top Cop Discusses New Search Policy). Several of the questions went right to the essential pointlessness of the program, and the Chief didn't have any good answers.

Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn was online Tuesday, Oct. 28 at 1:30 p.m. ET to take your questions about the department's new policy of inspecting bags for explosives.

The transcript follows.

Rockville, Md.: Hi, thanks for taking questions on this important policy shift. Can you tell us how many times have the searches in the New York City and Boston systems have discovered any credible evidence of sabotage or terrorism, such as explosives?

Michael Taborn: Unfortunately, we cannot provide numbers for the programs in New York and Boston. But there is a growing consensus in the transit industry that these inspections are a valuable security initiative.

Silver Spring, MD: People don't approach metro station entrances in single file. So how can you really count off every 17th (or whatever) person? That just seems like a handy excuse to have ready when you get caught engaging in profiling.

Michael Taborn: We can do adequate job of counting passengers as they enter a station.

Washington, D.C.: How can they stop every 15th or 17th or 21st person? People enter in mobs, not single-file lines. Also, if the transit police stop someone who isn't the "every 15th person" or whatever, couldn't that person refuse because they weren't chosen randomly? Can you ask them to prove to you that you were the next person in the preset formula?

Michael Taborn: A supervisor will designate one officer with the specific task of counting the passengers as they enter the station.

Washington, D.C.: I am opposed to these searches and plan on refusing any Metro officer's request to go through my bags. Because I'll be allowed to refuse search and turn around without being detained, I will simply enter the Metro through another escalator or elevator. How do you plan on addressing this loophole?

Michael Taborn: You may choose not to be searched and leave the station with your bags or other items. We do have a plan to address suspicious behavior.

And the best question of them all came from "Green Line Rider," followed by the worst non-answer from Chief Taborn.

Green Line Rider: If you're not going to search every single person coming into a Metro station, how is the policy effective? Anyone with illicit substances will simply refuse to be searched and go to another station. If you don't search everyone, then it's not worth doing. If you do search everyone, then you'll probably lose half your ridership out of frustration with the delays (think security lines at the airport). Why not just take those officers and put them more visibly on the platforms and in the trains/busses?

I certainly will think twice about riding Metro if I'm going to be randomly selected. I consider that an infringement of my rights for no apparent gain in security.

Michael Taborn: Legal authority to inspect packages brought into mass transit systems and other venues has been upheld by the courts in numerous jurisdictions. Metro's inspection program is very similar to the one conducted in the subway system in New York City. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has specifically ruled on the constitutionality of the New York program in MacWade v. Kelly.

Hey Chief, you better get used to being asked how you can justify carrying out an intrusive inspection program that has no apparent benefit. That ruling you cited from the Second Circuit Court has no bearing on the central question of whether searching bags is a good idea or just a waste of time. It doesn't even preclude a court challenge, since the Second Circuit does not cover the Washington region.

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