Metro’s Random Bag Searches: Reasonableness, Randomness, and “Security Theater”

In December, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) began a program of randomly inspecting rider bags. The program has stirred up much debate, as opponents question the constitutionality of the program, raise concerns that the program may lead to racial profiling, and argue that it is simply ineffective in protecting against terrorism.

 Pursuant to the program, riders wishing to take Metro may have to submit to an inspection of their carry-on items before they are allowed to proceed to their train. As a rider enters a Metro station, Metro Transit Police, in conjunction with TSA officials, may ask to inspect the rider’s carry-on items for explosive materials using ionization technology as well as K-9 units. Police will generally not open a person’s bag unless the technology or K-9 unit indicate that there is a need for further inspection. The inspection should last anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. Not every bag will be inspected, and riders have the option of refusing the inspection. If they refuse the inspection, they will, however, be prohibited from bringing the carry-on item further into the station. At that point, the person is free to leave the station, if he or she so chooses.

According to a video address posted by Metro Transit Police Chief Michael A. Taborn, the program, which is based on models used by New York and Boston transit systems, has not been implemented in response to any specific threat to the Metro system, but is rather intended to be an additional security method to help ensure safety.

The program has been criticized by some as violating the constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches. While courts with jurisdiction over Metro have not settled the issue, other courts have upheld the random bag searches in New York as constitutional. Considering that the New York Subway system has been targeted by terrorists, the courts argued that the searches are reasonable under the circumstances. As Washington’s Metro system is a similarly attractive target, courts may uphold WMATA’s program on the same grounds. The constitutionality issue also fades when one considers that passengers are free to turn away, if they do not want their belongings searched.

Civil liberties groups have voiced concerns that the bag inspections may not always be truly random. The groups cite numerous complaints in cities that implement similar inspection programs, which allege that racial profiling was used in determining whom to search. In its FAQ release, WMATA explains that it will use a formula to ensure that officers are not profiling.  Thus, officers pick a number, 12, for example, and every twelfth passenger with a bag would be selected for inspection. Whether or not officers will consistently stick to that formula is difficult to verify.

Perhaps the heaviest debate occurs around the question of whether or not the program is actually worthwhile. Some believe that the program is too costly and a misallocation of resources. WMATA responds by stating that the initiative will not present any extra costs to Metro, as equipment and manpower is already in place for this particular purpose and that it is covered by a $26 million multi-year TSA grant.

Additionally, some security experts question the program’s effectiveness in achieving its primary goal of thwarting terrorism. They claim that the random bag searches amount to nothing more than “security theater”.  First, inspections will only occur at a small number of stations at a time, meaning that most bags will pass through the system without any scrutiny. Second, like any other passenger, a potential terrorist could simply refuse an inspection and leave a station if he or she was asked to submit their bag. The terrorist could then walk to another station where no inspections were occurring and carry out the intended terrorist act. Thus, the program will have done little to increase safety.

The TSA grant for the program does require “visibility” and it is perhaps in this regard that the program is most effective. By setting up random checkpoints, WMATA shows that the system is not defenseless. These visible countermeasures may deter a potential terrorist. Moreover, the program will likely increase awareness among riders and remind them to report any suspicious activities or packages to a Metro employee.

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