For New Yorkers, random subway bag searches have been a way of life for six years. Now and then, straphangers see a trio of NYPD officers set up shop at an entrance, usually at rush hour when most people would rather just got home. Right now, ten years after 9/11 and what seems like a lifetime since Transit and the police started its own bag searches, Washington’s WMATA is launching its own bag searches, and the riders are not happy.
In many regards, the stories coming out of the District of Columbia mirror those from New York in 2005, but Metro passengers in DC are unhappier than straphangers here ever were. Dr. Gridlock of The Washington Post offers up his take on the bag searches in DC. While New Yorkers hate the MTA, folks in DC loathe the WMATA and have not take kindly to the latest intrusion into their privacy. He criticizes the WMATA board for falling to explore this change in policy, and the rhetoric is strong. It is, he says, “one more indignity” customers who have “taken so much from the transit authority” must withstand.
The WMATA officials of course defended the policy in December on grounds that, hey, New York is doing it. “While there is no specific or credible threat to the system at this time, this inspection program is part of our practice of varying our security posture and adds another type of visible protection on our system,” Richard Sarles, Metro’s interim GM, said.
“[Police Chief Michael] Taborn has ensured that this program will minimize inconvenience to riders. The program is based on similar successful law enforcement programs used routinely on transit systems in the New York, New Jersey and Boston areas. Inspections will be brief and are typically non-intrusive, as police will randomly select bags or packages to check for hazardous materials using ionization technology, as well as K-9 units trained to detect explosive material. Carry on items will generally not be opened and physically inspected, unless the equipment indicates a need for further inspection.”
As with in New York, those who refuse inspection are not permitted entrance into the system, and the riders absolutely hate it. “We’re not Israel, nor should we be. The searches are ineffective,” one said at a recent public forum.
These DC responses remind me of a time nearly six years ago when the MTA implemented a similar procedure. In the wake of the July train bombings in Europe in 2005, the MTA and other area transit authorities began random bag inspections throughout the region. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly felt that “time was right” to begin this security initiative, and taking to the airwaves, Mayor Bloomberg tried to assuage public fears of police misconduct. “I hope that we have established the right balance here, providing the kind of security we need while not being too intrusive and not violating their rights,” he said. “The way we’ve done this is: You can walk away if you don’t want your bag searched; you just can’t get on the subway. So we do it outside the turnstile. And there’s no profiling.”
Calling protecting our subways a “vital national interest,” The Times endorsed the practice, and after the first week, most watching the program cited “an absence of drama.” Still, civil liberties groups were not too happy with the searches, and the NYCLU filed suit in November.
The following year, a three-judge panel in the Second Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the searches. “In light of the thwarted plots to bomb New York City’s subway system, its continued desirability as a target, and the recent bombings of public transportation systems in Madrid, Moscow and London, the risk to public safety is substantial and real,” determined the judges.
Today, the bag searches have become background noise in the subways. At first, cops were inspecting every fifth passenger to enter the system, but these days, it appears far more random than that. I constantly see the police set up shop at West 4th St., but even with a heavy backpack in tow, I’ve never once had to stop for a bag search. Despite Bloomberg’s promises in 2005, I can’t help but think that I don’t look the part enough for the NYPD.
As D.C. grapples with a similar project — a legal challenge seems both brewing and bound to fail — maybe it’s time to reevaluate our city’s own program. Has it made the subways safer? Does it still? The MTA still faces fears of photography at depots where security staffing had to be reduced, and anti-terrorist experts admit that our rail systems remain insecure. There’s no good one way to keep terrorists at bay, and a wide array of local responses seem to be warranted to make sure we’re as safe as possible.
We seem to be stuck with the bag search hand we’ve been dealt. It — and the threat of terrorism — isn’t going away any time soon, and DC’s Metro riders will soon, for better or worse, learn the same lesson. While New Yorkers didn’t put up much of a fight or offer public outcry, though, Washingtonians won’t take their bag searches lying down.