Metro to Randomly Search Riders' Bags

Washington Post | October 28, 2008; Page A01
By Lena H. Sun

Metro officials yesterday announced plans to immediately begin random searches of backpacks, purses and other bags in a move they say will protect riders and also guard their privacy and minimize delays.

The program is modeled after one begun three years ago in New York that has withstood legal challenges. However, experts said it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of such searches, beyond assuring the public that police are being vigilant. New York officials declined to say what they have found in their searches; none of the other transit systems conducting random searches have found any explosives, officials said.

Metro officials said the program was not in response to a specific threat but prompted by increased security concerns before next week's election and the inauguration as well as by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and later bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, London and elsewhere.

Although Metro police said the program will begin immediately, they would not say which of their 86 rail stations or more than 12,000 bus stops would be subject to inspection on any given day. On some days, there might be no inspections, or there might be several. Fifteen officers have been trained to perform searches, and more will be trained, officials said.

Checkpoints will be set up at Metro facilities, and passengers will go through inspections before entering a rail station or boarding a bus. The random searches will focus on detecting explosives, and it is likely that some riders will have their bags inspected before next Tuesday's election, officials said.

Metro, the second-busiest subway system in the country, after New York's, carries more than 1.2 million passenger trips on a typical weekday.

"We realize that all Americans everywhere are at some risk from terrorism, and that those of us who live and work in the region of the nation's capital face increased risks," Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said at a news conference yesterday.

U.S. intelligence agencies have long warned that the weeks just before an election and immediately after are considered a "zone of vulnerability" for the country. The teams tasked with helping the winner of next week's presidential election transition into office also have been warned about the heightened chances of attack. Officials note that the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings took place three days before general elections in Spain.

The Metro searches will take place only when Transit Police determine that circumstances -- such as an elevated threat level -- warrant heightened vigilance. No advance notice will be given, but just before inspections begin, Metro police will post signs alerting riders. Inspections will be conducted by five to eight Transit Police officers and a police dog trained to sniff for explosives. Officials said searches would last eight to 15 seconds.

Transit Police will only inspect areas of bags that are capable of concealing explosives. Police will not be viewing the content of papers or other reading material. But if illegal items such as drugs are found, they will be confiscated as evidence, and police will cite or arrest the individual. Those who refuse to have their bags searched will not be allowed to enter. Transit Police will not arrest people who refuse to have their bags inspected.

In the searches, Transit Police will randomly choose a number, such as 17. Then they will ask every 17th rider with bags to step aside for an inspection before boarding a bus or entering a rail station. If others are acting suspiciously, Transit Police have the right to stop a person not selected for inspection.

In an online discussion yesterday on, commuters expressed concern and confusion. Few thought the program would make them safer. There was also confusion about how police would handle the searches.

"If they're going to check, they should check everyone," said Alexandria commuter Sandra Peterson as she entered the King Street Metro station yesterday.

Other riders compared the searches to restrictions imposed on those entering sporting events and said they would comply if it made the system more secure.

Transit systems in Boston and New Jersey have similar programs. In February, Amtrak began using mobile security teams to screen passengers and their carry-on bags along major routes, including Washington to Boston, and recently expanded to West Coast routes, including San Diego to San Jose.

Boston conducts hundreds of screenings a year, according to Paul MacMillan, acting transit police chief for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. There have been more than two dozen false alarms for explosives since the program began in 2006. Amtrak and Boston swab the outside of bags for explosives. If there is a positive readout, the bags are opened and searched by hand.

In New York, officers set up inspection posts about twice a month at each of 468 stations, according to Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, spokesman for the New York Police Department.

Unlike airline security measures, which are tested regularly by federal agencies to determine their effectiveness, ground transportation security measures have been subject to far fewer analyses, according to R. William Johnstone, a transportation security consultant who served on the staff of the 9/11 Commission.

A top official of the American Civil Liberties Union, which launched an unsuccessful challenge to New York's program, said the group would be "looking very carefully" at the Metro program. The program "doesn't make any sense," said Stephen Block, legislative counsel for the ACLU's National Capital region.

If a would-be terrorist finds random inspections taking place at one station, Block said, "he could just go up the escalator and go to a different station where bag searches are not taking place. . . . Assume they're doing searches at Farragut West. The bad guy simply goes to Farragut North."

Metro officials said police will give extra scrutiny to individuals who turn around or act suspiciously.

Security experts say such efforts are effective as part of a larger program. Michael Sheehan, a former senior NYPD counterterrorism official who helped put New York's program in place, said it is difficult to measure effectiveness. "When we established this in New York, it was to get cops more involved in stations, looking at bags," he said. The plan was not intended to be "a silver bullet to protect trains" but another measure to "keep terrorists off balance."

Random searches have been discussed by the Metro board in the past, usually in closed sessions. But board members had been reluctant to support them in the past, fearful of backlash from riders.