Update on D.C. Metro Bag Inspections

Last night, a crowded audience gathered at the WMATA headquarters to discuss the recent decision to begin randomly screening passengers bags for potential explosives. It is yet another example of how the regulatory state reacts when citizens find its actions untenable: the citizens are ignored.

According to Greater Greater Washington, of approximately 30 speakers given time, only one supported the initiative — while the rest strongly opposed it.

Representatives of Metro Transit Police (MTPD), though, weren’t fazed by the opposition. Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik gave a very brief presentation of the program without addressing concerns around effectiveness or the fear of an ever-encroaching police state.

In fact, when asked if MTPD would ever voluntarily discontinue the program, Pavlik said that would happen “when the world changes.” For many in the audience and for many at MTPD, I expect, that means never.

MTPD Captain Kevin Gaddis noted that of the 55 comments Metro had received regarding this topic through their online comment system, most were supportive of the policy.

I’m skeptical of the claim that the majority of online poll-takers were supportive of the decision, given the exact opposite results at the meeting. Perhaps “most” means the 2-3 they read while ignoring the rest. WMATAs response to criticism reminds us that citizen opinion isn’t to be considered, despite the number of sensible critiques (that it will do absolutely nothing to prevent a terrorist attack) and WMATAs own admission that “there is no specific or credible threat to the system at this time.”

A few more telling quotes:

MTPD considers this program to come at “no cost” to the agency. The officers used for these screenings are funded through a $26 million, multi-year antiterrorism grant from the TSA. The grant funds the officers’ salaries, equipment, and training. Only certain programs qualify, though that doesn’t necessarily have to include random bag searches. One requirement of the grant is “visibility”, which MTPD has fulfilled in the past through major “shows of force” at selected stations.

Of course, as Pavlik admitted, these officers could perform for other tasks in the system were they not screening bags. But the police force seems unable to recognize the concept of resource prioritization. Repeatedly, RAC members asked whether this was a wise use of resources. The MTPD representatives only responded that a “layered approach” was ideal, and that no one approach was best.

Despite no cost to the agency, its still a cost to taxpayers. It also appears that the TSA grant could be used by WMATA for other, more useful, security efforts.

And finally:

Proposals to run bag searches came up in 2005 and 2008, but following public pushback and concerns from the WMATA Board, the previous GMs and police chiefs decided not to move ahead. This time, Interim GM Sarles and Chief Taborn gave their approval with only the briefest of notifications to the Board.

When the public doesn’t support what you’re doing, wait a few years and shove it through without telling them.