Metro police officers are using new behavioral profiling techniques as they patrol subway stations, identifying suspicious riders and pulling them aside for questioning.
The officers are targeting people who avoid eye contact, loiter or appear to be looking around transit stations more than other passengers, officials said. Anyone identified as suspicious will be stopped and questioned about what they are doing and where they are going.
As part of their preparations for tighter security during the presidential inauguration, the officers have been trained by the Transportation Security Administration to take notice of the same behavioral characteristics and patterns that airport security officials watch for.
"It is effective," said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein, who noted that a few pickpockets have been caught over the past six months as officers in uniform and plain clothes have been applying their special observation skills.
A similar observation regime at Boston's Logan International Airport has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of an African American ACLU employee who said he was stopped and questioned by police for no reason after arriving on a flight from the West Coast. Security experts say race is not reason alone to approach someone.
Metro is also planning to place more of its 380-officer force on patrol in stations during the inauguration and to close two stations. The TSA will lend Metro bomb-sniffing dogs and may deploy airport security screeners to test bags and luggage with explosive-detection devices at the stations. The screeners will not be called upon to inspect every Metro rider but rather to operate machines that detect explosive residue on unattended bags, said an official familiar with the plans. The official was not sure whether Metro would use new handheld explosive-detection machines or more traditional machines, which heat fibers on a cotton swab that was swiped around a bag.
"A handful [of screeners] will be placed in strategic locations throughout the area," Farbstein said.
The train bombings in Madrid in March prompted Metro Police Chief Polly Hanson to seek the TSA's assistance months ago because of concern that such attacks could be copied in Washington's transit system, which handles about 650,000 riders per day.
The TSA is working with the Secret Service, which is overseeing inauguration security, on plans to bring in as many as 500 airport screeners from across the country to assist with the security, according to people familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are not final. The TSA employees will screen people along the parade routes and other locations using metal-detection equipment.
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield declined to discuss the agency's plans for behavior-observation training at airports but confirmed the agency had trained Metro police. He said the agency has offered to assist Metro for the inauguration, but many of the details, such as how many screeners and bomb-sniffing dogs would be assigned to Metro stations, are to be left to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
"We're providing assets," Hatfield said. "We're looking to WMATA for how they want them deployed and how they want to use them."
Law enforcement agencies at airports have increasingly used behavioral profiling methods after a deadly shooting at Los Angeles International Airport in July 2002, when a gunman killed two people and wounded three others near the El Al ticket counter.
The Massachusetts State Police has come under criticism for its program at Logan airport after its treatment of ACLU employee King Downing, who said he was threatened with arrest after refusing to show his identification. His belongings also were searched. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston against the state police, alleging illegal search and seizure.
"You can't use this very subjective sense of who's suspicious as a substitute for what the law would otherwise require . . . such as a basis for suspicion that someone is engaged in criminal conduct," said John Reinstein, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts State Police referred questions about its program to the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan airport. The port authority said its behavior-pattern recognition program has been effective, but it did not provide details on how many arrests had resulted.
"Logan's Behavior Pattern Recognition program is specifically designed to ensure the protection of everyone's constitutional and civil rights," the agency said in a statement. "Racial profiling is not an effective law enforcement tool and plays no role in behavior pattern recognition."
Security experts say such techniques can be useful in a transit system if deployed by well-trained law enforcement officers, but they must be able to explain to travelers why they are being questioned. "If a police officer asks you a question, they have to have a reasonable suspicion that they can articulate. . . . We don't live in a national ID-requirement society," said Charles Slepian, chief executive of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, a security-related think tank for the public and private sectors.
Isaac Yeffet, former security official with Israel's El Al airline, said such strategies are best conducted covertly, with officers out of uniform, and they should be considered just one of many security tools. "This can help, but this is only one item from series of items that the security has to cover," Yeffet said.
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.