Metro plans to begin random searches of its riders’ bags in the coming days, the transit agency said Thursday, revisiting a plan first announced two years ago. Some riders are saying they won’t be comfortable with the random searches.
Metro Police Chief Michael Taborn said the coordinated effort with the Transportation Security Administration was not in response to a specific threat but was part of a continuing effort to keep the system safe from explosives. Boston, New York and New Jersey transit officials do similar searches, according to the agency.
Metro officials would not specify when the first searches will begin, how long they will last, which locations will be targeted or how many riders’ bags will be searched. The agency planned to start alerting riders with pamphlets and station announcements on Thursday afternoon.
But riders immediately started to sound off against the plan.
How the searches will work
-Searches will occur in stations and transit areas before riders pay to enter, not on trains or buses. In areas with checkpoints, riders will see several officers, a sign announcing the search and a table.
- Officers will use randomized counting of riders carrying bags to choose who to screen.
- An officer will run a swab over the bag, then run it through a portable ionization device for finding explosives called a Sabre 4000, which is about the size of bread box. Bags will not be opened for the initial scan.
- Explosive-sniffing K-9 units will follow up on any positive scans from the equipment. The dogs are not trained to sniff for illegal drugs, Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said.
- Riders may choose not to have their bags searched but will not be allowed to enter the stations or buses with the items.
David Alpert, who serves on the agency’s Riders’ Advisory Council and writes the Greater Greater Washington blog, called it “security theater” that wastes money without stopping terrorists. He said such resources could be better spent having more officers and dogs patrol the system.
“Riders are already frustrated with Metro right now,” Alpert said. “Doing something that’s just going to frustrate riders is absolutely the wrong approach.”
Metro announced two years ago that it would conduct searches but never did any after riders and their advocates complained.
Metro officials would not say what prompted them to revisit the policy now, denying that the recent arrests of two men on separate allegations of threatening the subway system had anything to do with the timing.
“It’s an added a layer of protection we can add at this time,” Taborn said. “It’s another tool in our toolbox.”
The officers will try to “minimize inconvenience to riders,” General Manager Richard Sarles said, with brief inspections of randomly selected riders.
This time, though, the bags will be searched for hazardous materials using ionization technology and explosive-sniffing K-9 units. The earlier proposal involved officers opening riders’ bags and looking inside them. But bags will be not be opened unless they are deemed to need further inspection. Furthermore, Metro officials said, the equipment and dogs are looking for explosives and will not be looking for guns or drugs.