Dec 21, 2010

Dr. Gridlock will be online Tuesday, Dec. 21, at Noon ET to discuss the beginning of random baggage checks of passengers' bags and packages in the Metro system. This morning the searches were conducted at the Braddock Road and College Park stations.

Welcome, travelers. I usually chat with you at noon on Mondays, but this is a special edition focused on the program that Metro launched today in which police will set up check points to randomly inspect riders' property before entering the fare gates or boarding buses. This morning, passengers were subjected to these inspections  at Braddock Road and College Park.

Unlike my Post colleagues who are news reporters, I'm a columnist and am free to express opinions about such policies. I mention that because you'll see pretty quickly that I have an opinion -- a strong opinion -- on this policy.

Baggage checks at Braddock Road? Really? I guess it's a pretty "safe" place to start, but I was shocked this morning!

Yes, Braddock Road and College Park this morning. Law enforcement officers stopped riders at random and asked them to submit their bags to a swath test designed to test for potentially explosive materials.

The Post's Ann Scott Tyson was at Braddock Road. Here's her account:

Notice that the inspections were done by two TSA officers.

Here's a description of one encounter:

Officers at the same station got a positive result on a man's bag and shot it with radiation.

"It could have been from a gun, or residue from target shooting if he went to a firing range," said Lt. Doug Durham of the Special Operations unit of Metro Transit Police.

A police sergeant interviewed the man, who was let go. The search on that man took about 8 minutes. He wouldn't give his name. "I'm going to work" he said, clearly irritated.

If I'm rushing to catch a train -- or, more important, a bus at the end of the line -- I realllllly don't want to have to wait the "few moments" that officials referred to on the radio this morning.

No problem, says Metro. You can always refuse to have your property inspected.

And then you can walk to work. You'll be refused entry into the Metro system with your property. (Good reason not to be carrying any Christmas gifts aboard Metro this week.)

Metro begins random bag inspections

One more reason NOT to take Metro! Why does the government believe so much in restricting our freedoms? Whatever happened to us being a free society? This DOES NOT make us safer - it just gives fools a false sense of security. How about Metro actually making Metro safer, or is that just too much work for them?

You folks already are submitting a lot of interesting questions and comments. Many express concerns similar to mine, giving me a chance to exand on them. But if you love this new policy and think it makes you safer, I'd like to hear from you, too.

To Reston: Yes, I also think it's one more reason not to ride Metro. It's a nice little end of the year present from the transit authority leaders who brought you the biggest fare increase in the system's history, busted air conditioners, overcrowded trains and escalators that either don't work or take you for an unwelcome slide.

Does it make the transit system safer? I'm not a security expert, so I can't speak from that perspective. (I have yet to encounter security personnel who argued that there should be fewer security personnel.)

What I think I can say is that it makes the system more intimidating to travelers. Yes, the searches are "voluntary." When the man in uniform with the gun and the big dog asks you to submit, you can refuse -- though you may be detained for questioning.

Was this episode of security theater proposed by TSA or WMATA or some other entity? I could see TSA wanting to expand their reach and also see Metro asking for federal security assistance to imply that they take such threats seriously. I could also see the auto industry proposing this to drive people from Metro as well as the airports. I used to take Metro and I drive.

Well, Metro did try to do a different version of this program two years ago, but never implemented it. There was a similar outcry from the public last time it was announced. Many of the issues you're asking about today came up then.

(So knowing that, why didn't Metro officials bother to talk to the ridership before launching this new program?)

Metro officials say they are not inspecting your stuff because of any specific threat to the transit system and the nation's alert level has not been raised. However, Metro does have a federal Homeland Security grant and TSA officers are participating in these inspections.

I am unclear on whether the searches will apply to Metrobus too? If so, the holes in the policy seem even larger in that the stops are so close together. What is to prevent someone from refusing a search and then walking a few blocks to the next stop? Further underscores that this policy is a joke.

Yes, officers can stop you for an inspection before you board a Metrobus. That is tougher to picture than the train station inspections that began this morning. Metro says that you'll go through the inspections before you pay your fare. We'll talk more about the holes in this security blanket as we go on.

What happens if you say "No" to the bag check, leave the line, then re-enter the same line? If they pull you aside again, it's not a random check. If they don't pull you aside again, it's a gaping hole in their security theater, er I mean "safeguards." Also, I think the groups planning and implementing this are grossly underestimating how time-crunched and rushed the average Metro rider is during rush hour--we don't even have patience for people standing on the left of the escalator, how do they think we'll react when they really start pulling people aside en masse for 45 seconds of our time to perform bag checks?

I don't have any direct experience with the TSA officers in this program, but I have a great deal of respect for out Metro transit police. Much as I disagree with this inspection program, I think their goal is public safety, so they won't be just going through the motions on this.

I expect that if you refuse an inspection, they may well question you. If you try to enter with your property via another entrance, they may well stop you and at least question you further.

So I do think that under any conceivable circumstances, these inspections will be disruptive for riders.

From what I can gather they're only swabbing the outside unless it turns up positive - seems to me to be a reasonably non-invasive process that would take no more than a couple of moments if, and only if, you happen to get selected. It's not like you're going through a TSA-style pat-down...

That's a fair statement, and I'd like to make a couple of points.

Yes, this program is somewhat different from the program announced two years ago, at least on the surface.

It starts, as I just said, with a uniformed officer with a gun and a big dog asking you if you'd like to submit to an inspection of your property. Then you're taken over to a security table where -- at least in this morning's version -- a federal TSA officer swabs your bag, looking for the presence of something that could be used as an explosive.

If the test is positive, they're almost certainly going to examine the contents of your bag and question you. (What would you think of them if they didn't do that?)

None of what I'm describing here meets my definition of "non-invasive."

Has Metro given any indication as to what method they're using to determine "random"? Also, how are they dealing with folks obviously traveling? When we're headed to the airport tomorrow, are they going to want to open all of my suitcases?

Yes, it's possible they'll want to open all of your suitcases. My understanding is that this could happen if the swab test returned a positive result. (A positive result doesn't mean you're actually carrying an explosive, as the rider at Braddock Road found out this morning.)

A search would result in a considerable delay for you. (But let's also follow your adventure to it's logical conclusion: We know that your stuff is going to be subject to various inspections at the airport. I do think the airport inspections are different, but we can discuss that later.)

Dr Gridlock, Do you know whether any person intending to do harm has been caught by the extensive airport screening procedures now in place? I've not heard of any. This makes me wonder what the chances are of the Metro bag searches actually catching anyone.

I rarely write about airport security, so like you, I can't think of an instance in which a potential terrorist has been thwarted by an airport inspection.

As with the Metro inspections, people will argue that we'll probably never know if a terrorist was discouraged by an airport inspection.

But I do consider the airport inspections different. Pointing out again that I'm neither a lawyer nor a security expert, I find the airport searches reasonable, because we all must go through them, we all know what they're looking for, and we all know the specific, disasterous consequences of a security failure of this type.

To me, Metro's random searches, conducted by a handful of officers at a couple of stations, do not meet that standard of reasonableness.

"I expect that if you refuse an inspection, they may well question you." So it's not at all voluntary. The officer with the gun and the dog will ask permission to check your bag, you say no and say you'll leave the system, they'll possibly interrogate you and check your bag anyway. Great.

Metro calls the searches voluntary: "Customers who encounter a baggage checkpoint at a station entrance may choose not to enter the station if they would prefer not to submit their carry-ons for inspection."

That's not my idea of voluntary. If you're rushing to get to work or an appointment, as many thousands of commuters would be, there's nothing voluntary about an officer telling you that either you submit to a property inspection or you can't ride.


Then no you can't swap my bag. Am Isuspected of committing a crime? Not sure. Then I refuse. May I have your name please officer and that of your supervisor. Thank you see you in court.

I think you might be interested in the letter the American Civil Liberties Union sent to Metro in which the ACLU expresses deep concern about the police checkpoints:

Are they doing this simply because they have money to burn? I have lived in Israel, where imminent terrorist threats routinely require ALL bags to be searched- It makes no sense to harass a small group of passengers.

Given that setting up police checkpoints at public transit stations is clearly going to be intimidating to thousands of people who are just trying to get to work, Metro's statements about why this is necessary have been rather blithe.

I take them at their word when they say they are not doing it in response to any specific threat against Metro.

Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson quoted Interim General Manager Richard Sarles as saying, "It's good to vary your security posture."

And they keep pointing out to us that this program isn't costing Metro much money because they got federal Homeland Security funding.

So far, they haven't given us much grounding in why they need to cross this very significant threshold in civil liberties in order to protect us.

In all seriousness, can we as Americans (or Washingtonians, or whatever) have a reasonable conversation about what level of risk is acceptable? Right now, we're going overboard because we have a bunch of polarized politicians who will be glad to use any attack as a club to beat the opposition party. Back in the 1980s, we had more terrorist attacks on US interests overseas, but I don't remember them being blamed on one party's lack of vigilance. Can we go back to "We'll do our best to protect you consistent with a free and open society," or are we too far gone for that?

You can certainly tell that I think this particular Metro security policy has crossed a line that shouldn't be crossed. That's vastly different from saying I don't believe in security vigilance to protect transit riders. I welcome the presence of transit police on the trains and buses, I've got the transit police number on my cell phone speed dial, and I have often written that I think there should be many more officers.

These police checkpoints are taking us in the wrong direction.

Thanks for the answer - I'll just cross my fingers that they don't do the same station 2 days in a row, since I'm traveling tomorrow. But could you answer the first part of my question - what is Metro using to determine "random"? I feel like if there is going to be a legit battle against these inspections that is where the justification for opposition will lie.

They pick a number and count passengers with stuff. When they hit that number, they stop the passenger. I don't know how strictly the officers will adhere to that "random" standard. As I said before, I respect these officers and think they're dedicated to protecting us.

So let's use an extreme example to play out your question: If the officer sees an odd looking character carrying a huge backpack with fluid leaking from it, will the officer stick to the count and let that person go by?

It's hard to believe that officers won't be tempted to profile under any circumstances.

You triggered that check by acting suspicious. That's like criticizing getting pulled over for speeding because it isn't random.

I think what people are writing in and saying is that they'd try to go to another station entrance, or to another station if one is nearby. They may be acting "suspicious," but I'm pretty sure the people who are writing in to me today and saying they would do this are not terrorists. I may be naive, but I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

We're talking about the mass transit system serving the capital of the United States, at a time when the US is in violent conflict with terrorists who attack subways and buses just like Metro's. Isn't it possible that these random checks serve a valuable deterrent effect? Isn't it possible that by making it that much harder to plan a bombing of Metro, they flush potential attackers out as they try to develop new means of attack? Won't this disrupt existing cells and perhaps expose the bad guys through their efforts to compensate? Thanks.

Yes, all those things are possible. How far do you think we should go in this direction? I think you could make the case that it's even more possible to stop terrorist attacks on Metro if all riders were lined up at the station entrances and put through body scans while their bags are opened and they produce identification.

From a security point of view, isn't that the more responsible thing to do?



In this busy holiday travel season, why are TSA agents being diverted from their important jobs at airports to do these useless bag screenings on Metro? Or is Metro employing moonlighting TSA agents for this like malls employ moonlighting cops for security?

I don't know the answer to your question about the deployment of personnel, but I don't believe this amounts to "moonlighting" by the TSA officers acting outside of their legal jurisdiction.

I do wish, by the way, that federal authorities had taken an equally active role in overseeing the safety of local transit systems before the Red Line crash.

It sounds like they are only checking people carrying bags or purses. What about the big puffy winter coats? Many suicide bombers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel have the bombs strapped to their body. Are there plans for checking coats?

I don't know where this inspection policy will lead, once we get passed this first "That didn't hurt so bad, did it?" introductory phase.

The previous commenter used the now-famous phrase "Don't touch my junk." You'll recall that the airport inspections have advanced well beyond their initial phases to the new threshold of groping passengers.


How does Metro get around constitutional limits on search and seizures?

Metro's inspection program has not been tested in the courts. The transit authority has noted that the New York subway inspection program survived a court test.

As a rider at Braddock Road, I'm glad to have stayed home today. I hink they chose Braddock because it's less busy than King Street. I don't like these "random" searches-especially that it doesn't seem like the procedure would find anything. I've ridden on the London Tube before and after 7/7 and yet they don't have police searches. If Metro wanted to be like NYC, they'd have police ride the trains themselves and make their presence felt.

I grew up in New York and always appreciated the very visible presence of police on the trains. It's quite a contrast to Metro.

I admit I'm shocked at the level of anger about this. As a former resident of NYC - it's not a big deal. It doesn't take that long. It's just like the security lines at the airport. I think it's true - most of us are good people and law-abiding citizens who follow the letter of the law - so why are we subjected? Becuase of the random nut jobs and terrorists who rely on us being trusting and complacent. Trust me - the first time a bomb goes off on a DC subway all of you who complained are going to crying foul about how Metro didn't do more to keep you safe. You can't have it both ways.

There's really no limit to what Metro could do to keep us safe. Even if we all had to pass through detectors before boarding the trains and buses, if a bomb went off, there would be plenty of criticism.

But how far is it reasonable to go in guaranteeing that riders are safe? I've been riding Metro for 22 years. Frankly, if I thought I was going to get blown up, I wouldn't get on the train. That's a deal-breaker for me.

Yet I don't believe these random searches are a reasonable protection. I think the very real loss, as of today, in personal liberty for a great mass of travelers is far greater than the ephemeral reward in personal security.

Travelers, thanks for sticking with me through a very stimulating discussion. I know I haven't gotten to all of your comments and questions -- looks like at least a few dozen still in the mailbag. But I need to break away now. I'll try to publish some of the remaining comments on the Dr. Gridlock blog by Wednesday. And you can write to me any time at

Stay safe, whether or not you get searched.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on his Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
Recent Chats
  • Next: