“Ladies and gentlemen, I have just defeated Metro’s bag inspections.”

6 minute read

December 12, 2012, 10:40 PM

As summed up in this tweet, this evening’s commute was definitely a memorable one for me.  The ride itself was uneventful, but the events leading up to it demonstrated major flaws in Metro’s random bag inspection program (which has been discussed in this space in 2008 and in 2010) and proves that it will never catch anythingEver.

My evening commute got started as it usually does.  I packed up my stuff, walked over to Dupont Circle station, and went down the brand new south escalators.  Coming down the escalator, I noticed signage at the bottom that indicated that Metro was doing its random bag inspections.  That was a first – I’d never seen one of those happen in person before.  There were two Transit Police officers standing behind a table, swabbing people’s bags.  No one said anything to me.  Then as I headed toward the faregates, the female Transit Police officer standing in front of the kiosk stopped me and said that I had been selected for screening.

I was a bit surprised about that.  I figured this would be just walking by and watching as Metro unnecessarily slowed people down on their way home from work.  I never imagined that I would be the one getting chosen for extra scrutiny.  I knew that I wasn’t going to take this one lying down.  My exact words to the officer were, “I am refusing the search,” and I went back up the escalator.  According to a quote from Metro in a 2010 Washington Post article on the subject, a person who “refuses to submit their carry-on items for inspection will be prohibited from bringing those items into the station.”  Note that.  Since I refused the search, I was, based on information provided to the public, prohibited from bringing my blue work bag onto Metro, which contained an umbrella, my by-then-empty lunch container, my transit log book, a set of keys, and a few various odds and ends (mostly junk – I really need to clean out my bag).

Back on the street, I walked north around the west side of Dupont Circle and another block north on Connecticut Avenue to Dupont Circle station’s Q Street entrance.  Considering that I refused the search, I kind of expected to run into some trouble at the north entrance, especially since Transit Police chief Michael Taborn had previously told the media that a person who refused a bag search would be “observed”.  And my activities weren’t that hard to observe, either.  I just left the station at one entrance, walked directly to the other entrance for the same station, and went right back in.

At the Q Street mezzanine, there was no personnel whatsoever that I could find.  No Transit Police, no station manager, no one that worked for Metro.  So I walked in, tapped my SmarTrip at 5:56 PM, and went on through, with everything that I had brought with me to the other entrance, i.e. my blue bag.  My SmarTrip records confirm the entry:

My entrance into Metro after refusing the bag search

Then I went down to the platform, and promptly caught Rohr 1241 on the Red Line to Glenmont.  I took a seat, and the train departed.  The ride was uneventful, and I exited the Metro at Glenmont and caught the 51 shortly thereafter.  Again, my SmarTrip records confirm:

Leaving the Metro at Glenmont and boarding the 51

And then I was home.  40 minutes is normal for a perfectly uneventful commute, i.e. I took one train from Dupont Circle straight to Glenmont with no delays of any kind.  I did not drop back a train further up the line or otherwise attempt to evade any Transit Police that might be “observing” me for refusing the search earlier.  And I still made my regular bus at Glenmont, which I was afraid that I might miss on account of what happened at Dupont.

Let’s take a moment to let the seriousness of what just happened sink in.  Metro was doing “random” security inspections of people’s bags at Dupont Circle’s south entrance.  Provided that they were following the protocols previously outlined to the public, one out of every X number of people would be stopped for the bag inspection.  I was that person and was asked to stop for an inspection.  I refused, and left.  So far, so good, right?  A person with an object that Metro decided was of interest from a security standpoint was prevented from entering the system, and departed.  So far, their system worked.  The failing came in the fact that Dupont Circle has two entrances, and they were only doing inspections on one side.  Kind of like padlocking the front door while leaving the back door wide open.  This enabled me to be stopped for inspection on one side of the station, exit the station, go over to the other entrance for the same station, enter the station on the other side with all of my stuff, and board a train.  I was doing this solely on principle, i.e. about not rolling over and letting the authorities search me, and also to demonstrate exactly how comically ineffective this security theater practice of random bag inspections is.  But if I could do it just to make a point, someone with intent to harm could do the exact same thing.  Therefore, this practice of random bag inspections isn’t preventing anyone from bringing anything in at all.

This really should not be a surprise to anyone.  I had discussed this exact practice in my 2010 Journal entry on the subject in regards to how a person intent on causing harm could circumvent the inspection process:

Or, wait – leave entirely, and walk a block or two to the second entrance that many stations have and go in over there. Or perhaps an entirely separate elevator entrance. Judiciary Square, for instance, has four completely separate entrances: an escalator outside of One Judiciary Square, another escalator at the National Building Museum, and then two elevator entrances that bypass the mezzanine completely and go straight to the platform. So hypothetially, someone intent on causing chaos could go into Judiciary Square station via the One Judiciary Square entrance, get called over for a random screening, refuse it, leave the station, take an elevator down to the platform, stand next to the faregates (which are directly on the platform) while still outside fare control, pull the pin, and kaboom. Bye bye Red Line service. And we would have wasted all this money on alleged “security” procedures that are very dependent on authorities guessing the movie plot threat correctly.

What’s really scary is that this scenario played out almost exactly like I described it in 2010.  And I thought I was exaggerating things a bit at the time, and thought that such a thing would never really actually happen in real life.  Apparently, I was wrong.  The only difference between my hypothetical description in 2010 and today was that I took an escalator through another mezzanine, and did not take an elevator directly to the platform, since Dupont Circle’s street elevator does not reach the platform.  Metro is quite fortunate that it was me doing this while just coming home from work and finding an opportunity to make a point, and not a bad guy intent on causing harm.

On the other hand, Metro should be proud of me for being PlanBdextrous, i.e. “able to plan an alternate route home in case Metro is inaccessible due to unforeseen circumstances”, which they advertised in railcars a few years ago.  They made my normal route inaccessible, and I found an alternate route.

So now that I have publicly demonstrated through actual practice that the random bag inspections are ineffective, the question becomes, what do we do from here?  There are two ways to go.  I suppose that this could be an excuse for some politician to throw even more money down the proverbial rathole to continue or even expand this worthless “security” program.  Or perhaps the people in power might just finally realize that the bag inspections are a waste of everyone’s time and money, and scrap the program.  After all, according to Bruce Schneier, the best security measures against terrorism are largely invisible.  These “invisible” security measures are in fact, how, two years ago, authorities nailed a man who was plotting a bomb attack on Metro.  And they caught him well before he ever would have done anything.  Realize, after all, that if you’re stopping the guy with the bomb at the faregate, you are probably too late, because the bomb is already in the system.

However, if the folks at Metro really want to have a visible method of increasing the public perception of safety and security within the rail system, a good place to start would be to upgrade the station lighting

Categories: Commuting, Security, WMATA