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Responding to a Transit Terror Threat, Bomb Sniffing Dogs, Bag Searches and More?

9:05 AM PDT on May 6, 2011

By now you've probably read or heard that plans taken from the same house where Osama Bin Laden was killed point to a planned terrorist attach on Los Angeles trains during an upcoming national holiday or the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  According the news sources, the plans didn't specify a bomb attack, but instead focused on knocking a train off its tracks by placing some sort of item in the way.

Metro and Metrolink reacted to news of Bin Laden's death by beefing up security, both Sheriffs and private security, at train stations and major bus stops.  While Metro hasn't revealed every security measure being taken, we do know that there have been an increase in the number of bomb sniffing dogs at stations and, of course, the an increase in the random searches of passenger bags.

Apparently, after spending three years (and counting) to install fare gates, Metro Rail still isn't 100% inoculated against terrorist attacks.

Los Angeles County Sherriffs have been conducting random searches of passenger bags at Metro rail stations since the summer of 2009, one year after the Metrolink began doing searches on their own.  Circuit Courts have consistently ruled that these kind of random searches are legal as long as they are completely random.  Of course, just because something is legal doesn't mean it is a good idea.  It also doesn't mean there aren't lawsuits pending seeking to overturn existing case law.

Look, terrorism is a real problem.  Given the recent headlines, it make sense to be prepared and vigilant to protect against attacks.  That's why wasting resources on random bag searches and using the real specter of terrorism to defend unrelated projects, such as fare gates, is so offensive.

Why don't random bag searches work?  Because they are amazingly easy to avoid.

Thanks to the 21st century reality of social media, word will spread when and where bags are being searched when searches happen.  If someone knows where to look, they will know which stations to avoid if they need to avoid surveillance.

Given how close many Metro rail stations are to each other, if an evildoer arrives at a station and sees a back check occurring, he or she could spend twenty minutes and just walk to the next station.  But let's say our potential terrorist is so distracted by the act he or she is about to commit, they fail to notice the inspections.  Then, under case law when approached by a Sheriff or other security, he or she can refuse the search, leave the station and head on down to the next one.

To double compound the problem, wasting time conducting a random search looking for terrorists; security is being stretched very thin.  It's no secret that the response time to 9-11 and emergency calls is getting longer for the Sheriffs.  Its hard to imagine they have the time to harass rail passengers, respond to emergency calls and alarms and proactively search Metro and Metrolink tracks to search for items that could cause a crash.

Random bag searches are also bad for Metro's riders.  Searches add to the commute times of passengers, create an air of suspicion amongst passengers, and discourage people from riding transit.  Regardless about how you feel about privacy and the 4th Amendment, there are many people that feel these searches violate their privacy.  If such a person expects to be searched, he or she will probably find another way to travel.  In an era where ridership should be booming, Metro is actually floundering compared to ridership numbers from last year.  Treating potential customers with suspicion is not likely to earn their loyalty.

As I said earlier, I don't doubt that terrorism is a real threat.  I don't doubt that our transit agencies are trying to keep us safe.  But embracing a strategy that is a proven loser isn't the best way to protect customers and the public at large.  Metro should bag the searches and double up on other methods.

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