Home Subway Security In D.C., a different debate over bag searches

In D.C., a different debate over bag searches

by Benjamin Kabak

Random bag searches have been the way of life underground since 2005. (Photo by flickr user Runs With Scissors)

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.

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22 comments

mike January 6, 2011 - 1:36 am

I wonder if part of the difference can be attributed to the fact that subway stations in New York are generally less spread out than Metro stations in and around DC. So if you are stopped but don’t feel like being searched, it’s generally less of a hassle for New Yorkers to walk to the next station than it would be for Washingtonians.

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Signal Watcher January 6, 2011 - 6:58 am

It’s only been a way of life in NYC if you have allowed yourself to be submitted to the searches. If you have refused and simply enter the subway through a difference entrance than bag searches are not a way of life.

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BoerumHillScott January 6, 2011 - 7:28 am

In the 6 months we have lived in New York, I have not been stopped at all, and my wife has been stopped once. Neither of us look the part of the “stereotypical terrorist”

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Scott E January 6, 2011 - 8:18 am

I commuted 5 times a week to the city for 3 1/2 years, and was stopped once. A police officer stood by the large turnstile bank (near LIRR) at Atlantic Ave and you could see him counting off passengers.

During they inspection, they swabbed the zippers on my bag (the ones I showed them) and put the swab in an explosive-detecting machine. I don’t even remember if they opened the bag, but if they did, it certainly wasn’t every compartment. It would’ve been really easy to sneak something through if I wanted.

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BoerumHillScott January 6, 2011 - 8:59 am

My wife was also stopped at that station complex but on the Pacific Street side.
Her inspection was pretty similar to yours

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Tim January 6, 2011 - 8:51 am

I’ve lived in Manhattan since 2005, take the subway daily, and have never been stopped for checking.

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Andrew D. Smith January 6, 2011 - 9:01 am

Are there any numbers about what they find? Have random checks ever found any sort of weapon that may have actually been intended for subway terrorism? Is there any evidence that the searches make it less likely for would-be terrorists to carry weapons onto the subway?

I ask less because of civil rights concerns than manpower concerns. Every man hour spent on meaningless tasks is one that isn’t available for real work.

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Nathan H. January 6, 2011 - 9:43 am

There have been, but I can’t find them at the moment. Basically, they find a lot of drugs. Woo hoo. For police, the searches are a win-win. For civil rights, they are lose-lose. They respond to a risk that is relatively low (compared to boring old death by accident or disease) and provide no meaningful reduction of that risk (terrorists can use other entrances too), but they do succeed in acclimating citizens to the loss of a fundamental right.

That we were the first to submit to these searches is a great shame to New York. Like others I have refused the search when I was personally asked to submit, but I’m not sure that’s enough considering what is at stake.

Police searches must have cause. The principle is fundamental. Terrorism doesn’t change it, and the Second Circuit’s reasoning is a bunch of baloney. You can truthfully say that any place in New York is a potential terrorist target, so if you accept their argument you are accepting that you have no fourth amendment rights at all. Problem is, people seem okay with that lately.

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John January 6, 2011 - 11:19 am

I think there’s a distinction in that you’re entering private property (I think the subway is technically private property – may be wrong though), versus being searched in a public place.

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Nathan H. January 6, 2011 - 4:03 pm

The subway is publicly subsidized. The police are the government police. It’s a shell game.

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Edward January 6, 2011 - 9:28 am

A complete waste of time and resources. The cops, if they do search somebody, make a cursory look into your bag and then wave you past with a polite “thank you.” Seriously, if some idiot had a bomb in his bag, do you think he’d go into a station with five cops standing at a table? He’d walk the six lousy blocks to the next station, or wait for another day.

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Christopher Stephens January 6, 2011 - 11:06 am

While I don’t have anything substantive to base this on, my suspicion has always been that this is an enormous boondoggle to funnel federal dollars to NYC. It’s a relatively easy gig for the cops – I sometimes see them at my subway stop, 86th & Lex, but I have never seen them stop anyone or search anything. So it’s just a way to justify the salaries to two cops standing around indoors doing nothing. Again, I’m not positive about this and would be happy if someone else could do the research on this, but aren’t these “checks” paid for by anti-terrorism money coming from Washington? If so, what a waste.

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SEAN January 6, 2011 - 11:07 am

Here’s how NBC Washington puts it.

Metro’s “Show of Force” Irks Many
Are searches catching any terrorists?
By P.J. ORVETTI
Updated 10:09 AM EST, Thu, Jan 6, 2011

“When the world changes.”

That’s when Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik, speaking at Monday’s Metro Riders’ Advisory Council, said WMATA will end random bag searches of Metro passengers. Despite the high-profile subject — more than 100 people turned out, a record that exceeded even meetings on fare hikes — neither Chief Michael Taborn nor WMATA interim general manager Richard Sarles bothered to attend.

Out of more than 30 speakers from the public, just one supported the searches. Some were philosophical, like the Air Force colonel who said, “Regardless of whether the searches are constitutional, they are not right. If we give up liberty for security, we dishonor the sacrifice” of America’s soldiers. Johnny Barnes from the regional ACLU said, “We can be safe and free, but we are not safe if we are not free.”

But other opponents focused on the impracticalities of the searches, suggesting they are just for show. A rider named Andy Hunt said if he can walk 10 blocks to avoid a peak of the peak fare, a would-be terrorist can easily walk to another Metro station.

This is the biggest failing in the policy. While the Transportation Security Administration may be a hassle at the airport, at least everyone goes through screening. With the WMATA searches, a would-be bomber could enter, see a search going on, and just walk off to another station where no search is being done.

In fact, Pavlik conceded that someone who refused a bag check could exit the station and board the next Metro bus — as if terrorists have never blown up buses before. Metro police also said purses and smaller bags do not qualify for searches, though a bomb could easily fit into a purse.

Despite all this, Metro Transit Police Captain Kevin Gaddis told the crowd that the five station checks that have already taken place, resulting in about 100 searches, were all “successful.” Does that mean MTPD nabbed the next Richard Reid? No. When pressed, Gaddis said this meant the screenings were completed with a minimum of passenger delay, and that a “show of force” was made against terrorism.

But this should not be where Metro is focusing. As rider Hunt also remarked, Metro itself has killed and injured more riders than any terrorists in the system. That’s no surprise. It’s not that Metro is exceptionally careless (though some would say it is). It’s just that acts of terrorism, while horrific and high-profile, are very rare.

You are nearly 1,100 times as likely to die in a car accident as in a terrorist attack, yet we all get behind the wheel each day. You are a dozen times as likely to accidentally suffocate in your own bed at night as to die in a terrorist attack, but it doesn’t keep us up nights. You are 12,600 times as likely to die of cancer, and nearly 18,000 times as likely to die of heart disease, as to die in a terrorist attack.

You are even eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. Maybe WMATA should search all cops.

Pavlik says the policy will change “when the world changes.” But the world has changed — though not in the way he means.

Though it’s been forgotten in an age where “terrorist” is a pejorative tossed around too freely, the term originally meant the commission of a shocking act directly impacting a small number, with the goal of terrorizing a larger number into fear or capitulation.

That goal has been reached. Every would-be attack, no matter how implausible, leads to another round of fear, another round of crackdowns, another “show of force.” And still, an attacker or two slips through, because it is simply not possible to catch every bad guy every time.

We have not learned to live with terrorism. We have learned to live with the security state. And that’s why time-wasting indignities like these futile Metro bag searches will continue.

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

My own thaughts.

Unlike NYers, DC area residents are MORE likely to leave there Metro system with the slightest provocation. Several Post readers suggested shutting the entire bus & rail system down because it serves no purpus. I guess those readers aren’t aware of DC’s horiffic traffic.

As for the bag searches it is nothing more than security theatre & most people know it. It follows the old “just say know” to drugs line. Great theatre especially when a huge bust makes the news, but doesn’t solve the bigger problem.

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Christopher January 6, 2011 - 2:11 pm

I bet those “Post readers” are exurban cranks. Metro is pretty much how DC federal employees get to work (which is why the Feds pump so much money into it). The number of Fed workers using represents the majority of the commuters. So without it, Federal workers — who have almost no parking options — would be up sh*t creek.

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SEAN January 6, 2011 - 2:53 pm

I don’t know if all of them are, butI’ll bet on most.

Part of the issue lies in the atitude “if I Don’t use it, then I shouldn’t be forced to pay for it. I come across this in the JN all too often & it is reaching a level that should concern everyone because there’s an angry & vialent undercurrent to it. The same themes also appear in the Post as well.

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Alon Levy January 6, 2011 - 11:34 am

I’ve never been stopped on the subway. It has a lot to do with the fact that I’m very white and not particularly tall, and look like a student. A friend of mine, who’s tall and somewhat darker-skinned and wears a thick beard gets stopped all the time.

The problem is that to successfully make a civil rights lawsuit, you need to demonstrate a pattern. Suing individual cops is probably a waste of time. Is it possible to sue NYPD and get an injunction to end the searches pending an investigation into racial profiling?

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AK January 6, 2011 - 3:13 pm

The short answer to the latter question is no. Thanks to increased pleading standards, in order to secure a preliminary injunction barring implementation of the policy, you need to put forth a complaint alleging sufficient facts to support a “plausible” case– in other words, the bulk of the investigation must be complete in order to get the PI these days.

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JP January 6, 2011 - 11:14 pm

Here’s the pattern: they’re always at the same entrances on the same days of the week.

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MadPark January 6, 2011 - 3:10 pm

It might be time to subscribe or re-new a membership in the ACLU if so inclined…
Thye are the primary bullwark these days agains Security Theatre.

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Al D January 6, 2011 - 4:11 pm

They really should attempt to ‘dupe’ the terrosists by offering $0.05 lemonade at their little folding table lemonade stands.

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Nathan H. January 6, 2011 - 4:32 pm

And don’t forget that it was the FBI’s idea for their dupe to pretend-bomb the DC subway:

“But Farooque Ahmed, 34, of Loudoun County never suggested any attacks inside the United States, and the plot to attack Metro was hatched by government operatives posing as terrorists, according to court records unsealed Thursday.”
–Washington Post

So if the FBI wants to expand police search powers to a new domain, they only need to suggest to the next extremist fool that falls into their hands that he try to blow up target X, then arrest him for it. This generates enough press about X blowing up, leading to enough public terror, to give the government cover to take substantial rights away from the public using that facility.

They could have let Ahmed fake-attack whatever he wanted, but they pushed him towards the Metro for a reason: cold, calculated manipulation of the public. Now that they have search-without-cause power in subways, they can tell the next duped kid to bomb some other place they would like the same unquestioned authority.

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SEAN January 6, 2011 - 5:36 pm

AKA entrapment, & we Americans are the losers.

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