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Should Metro riders have a say in security procedures?

Sunday, January 9, 2011; 12:45 AM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The folly of Metro's random bag checks is obvious if you look at the math. There are 86 Metrorail stations. If Metro were to check a random number of bags at random stations, that's meaningless.

In addition, swabbing for explosives can't work. There are a virtually unlimited number of explosives with very different properties. No simple test can identify explosives.

Furthermore, powerful explosives could easily fit in someone's pocket. Random bag checks are a complete waste of time and money, and Metro can't afford to waste time and money.

- Bobby Baum, Bethesda

Many Metro riders have expressed similar doubts about the passenger inspections that the transit authority launched last month. About 100 people took advantage of their first chance to discuss the new policy at a meeting of the Metro Riders' Advisory Council on Monday night. On Wednesday, the council overwhelmingly approved a resolution that will ask the Metro board to suspend the inspections and consult with the public about transit security policy.

Should we have a say in security? Most of us aren't security experts or constitutional scholars.

Any time our transit police officers set up one of these checkpoints at Metro stations, they are putting themselves in harm's way to protect us. Even if they don't wind up opening a bag full of bombs - an event that riders and police agree is extremely unlikely - they could wind up confronting a person intent on doing damage in some way. So we should listen carefully to what these officers have to say about the checkpoint program.

But that doesn't mean we can't question how much security this program provides. And it doesn't mean we can't apply our own reasonable standards about surrendering privacy to the government in exchange for whatever level of protection is being offered.

This has been done before. The colonists who questioned the right of the king's government to search their property weren't experts on the Fourth Amendment. They hadn't written it yet. They just knew what they didn't like and thought it was worth a fight.

The travelers who attended the Riders' Advisory Council hearing didn't want to take up arms. They just wanted to talk. The council, a citizens panel created by the transit authority to advise it, did something the Metro board has failed to do: It provided a forum for police officials to state their case and for riders to ask their questions and present objections.

Then the council did another thing that the Metro board members have failed to do: They discussed the policy among themselves and raised their own concerns. These were among them:

l Given that police say they know of no credible threat to the transit system, why launch a program that requires randomly selected passengers who have shown no signs of suspicious behavior to submit to property inspections?

l If a would-be rider exercises the right to refuse the inspection, what will happen to that passenger? Police have indicated that law enforcement personnel will observe the behavior of that person upon leaving the station and will take any appropriate action, but they will not say what such action might involve.

l Police have said that would-be riders who refuse the inspection can take their property back to their cars and re-enter the station. But many riders don't arrive by car. However they arrive, many are just trying to make it to work on time. Do riders have any real choice about submitting to the police inspections?

l Is there a plan for how police will handle arriving riders who have disabilities - such as impaired vision or hearing - that might interfere with their ability to understand what the police want them to do and why?

l How will the transit authority know when it's time to stop this? Answering a rider's question on Monday night, transit police Capt. Kevin Gaddis said, "I think until things change in the world, we are going to continue to do this." Will the inspection program become a permanent part of Metro riding?

l Given that there was no attempt to involve riders in discussions about security before this passenger-inspection program was launched, what other forms of personal inspections might be added in the future?

When Interim General Manager Richard Sarles announced to the Metro board last month that police would begin stopping riders at random for inspections, the board was inert. This leadership group, which likes to think of itself as a policymaking panel, didn't ask a single question on behalf of riders.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: drgridlock@washpost.com. His blog: washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

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