Members of public speak out against Metro bag inspections

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 10:49 PM

Members of the public spoke out against Metro's decision to start random bag inspections, with speaker after speaker condemning the initiative at a meeting held by the Metro Riders' Advisory Council on Monday evening.

In a string of one-minute statements in the public comment period of the Riders' Advisory Council (RAC) meeting, virtually every speaker called the searches unconstitutional, invasive and ineffective - arguing they could create a false sense of security and aid terrorists. Speakers urged Metro to halt the practice.

"I'd like to ask Metro to please stop wasting our time and money," Andy Hunt said, adding that Metro has hurt more people in accidents than any terrorist. "If he wants to hurt us, he's gonna hurt us."

Dozens of other speakers agreed, castigating the searches as "security theater" that is more likely to heighten fear than safety and rejecting Metro's position that the searches will deter attackers.

"We're not Israel, nor should we be," Robert Ehrmann said. "The searches are ineffective." His comments drew applause, as did those of many speakers.

Metro Transit Police officers at the meeting countered that public comments submitted to Metro on the searches have been positive and showed a video illustrating how the checks are conducted.

"Public comment has been very supportive" apart from at the RAC meeting, said Capt. Kevin Gaddis of the Transit Police. "We have had 55 comments from riders regarding this program" and most were positive, he said. "No customers to date have refused to have their bag searched."

According to the Metro policy, if a customer refuses to allow his bag to be tested for explosives he is not allowed to board buses or trains with the bag.

Another complaint was that inconvenience and delay caused by the searches may hurt ridership. Some speakers said the inspections would discourage them from using the transit system.

"Even a short delay can have a cascading effect," said Karen O'Keefe, a member of the D.C. Bill of Rights Commission.

Metro officials say the transit agency seeks to keep the inspections as quick as possible and will not open any bags unless they are flagged by machinery. The agency said that it would target only bags big enough to hold an explosive and that an typical sized purse would not be inspected.

Police said they would uphold their duty to enforce local laws, which could include arresting a rider if contraband were discovered in a search.

Other speakers expressed concern that the inspections could lead to racial profiling. Metro says they are random, with officers selecting whom to search by a pre-determined count of bags.

Transit Police began random inspections of passengers' bags and packages Dec. 21 at the Braddock Road and College Park stations, with reactions from riders pulled aside for checks ranging from irritation to reassurance. Police said they they have set up five inspections - three in addition to the two Dec. 21 checks.

The inspections, carried out by Transit Police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs as well as Transportation Security Administration officers, lasted about 30 seconds but can run for several minutes if the hand-held explosives detection devices give positive readings.

Metro announced its decision to begin the searches in mid-December, two years after it unveiled a similar plan that was never implemented.

The announcement came six weeks after law enforcement authorities arrested a Virginia man in an alleged plot to bomb Metrorail stations there and a week after arresting a man who made threats on his Facebook page about putting pipe bombs on Metrorail cars.

Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said that the inspections were important as an additional tool for improving security and that it was helpful to "vary" security practices.

The inspections on the transit network - the nation's second-busiest, with 86 rail stations and 12,000 bus stops - will be conducted by, at most, several dozenofficers, and Metro officials have acknowledged that the searches will have limitations in an open rail and bus system that carries more than 1.2 million passengers on average weekday.

Matt Johnson said the searches defied logic because "if someone looks suspicious, we can't be sure the police will search them." In addition, he said that if police instead only searched people who appeared suspicious, random searches would be unnecessary. He said that if he were approached to be searched he would refuse, then boycott Metro for his next five trips.

Several speakers urged Metro to focus its resources on other problems and questioned whether transit authorities who appear unable or unwilling to enforce other rules - such as those banning eating and drinking on the system - could effectively prevent terrorist attacks with the searches.

The full RAC will meet Wednesday and consider possible resolutions on the search policy, which, if passed, would be forwarded to the Metro board.

Staff columnist Robert Thomson contributed to this report.

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