Last Wednesday’s overwhelming vote by the WMATA Riders Advisory Council calling on the Board to halt the bag searches and reconsider the program was welcome news indeed. But comments by Metro Transit Police Chief Taborn were troubling.
In response to RAC member Diana Zinkl’s question about what would happen to people who refused a bag search and walked away, Chief Taborn responded:
CHIEF TABORN: Well I can tell you without any uncertainty that that person would be observed. And what that means to you is different than what it means to me, but that person would be observed.
DIANA ZINKL: Well could you clarify what ‘be observed’ means?
CHIEF TABORN: Be observed. Be, be observed. Be watched.
DIANA ZINKL: And when they try to get on the bus, what would happen?
CHIEF TABORN: That will be activities that law enforcement will use just as any regular law enforcement has to establish probable cause, to find out who, what, where, why, and when.
(Here’s a transcript of the Q&A session.) It got worse. In response to a followup by chair David Alpert, Taborn was at pains to emphasize that no photographs would be taken — but “[a]t some point in time, as we work with the FBI and as we work with the Department of Homeland Security, we establish why” a person declined the search.
Replying to a final question by RAC member Chris Schmitt, Taborn denied there was any constitutional issue at all with the bag searches, adding “…we’re not impinging on anyone’s civil rights by having them subject to a baggage screening. If they choose not to, they leave the system. If they choose not to, and leave the item in their particular vehicle, then they’re free to come into the system. “
Setting aside how Taborn’s suggestion privileges car drivers, of all people, in their use of a public transit system, his assertion would ring truer if those choosing not to be screened were not threatened with heightened scrutiny. It was disappointing that WMATA and its police force emphasize choice or freedom to leave the Metro system in press releases and talking points, and then reveal that those who do so face investigation by local and federal authorities.
This issue deserves closer examination by the public. Whatever Chief Taborn may believe, we know that we have the right to remain silent, to not be searched without cause as we go about our daily affairs, and to not face scrutiny for insisting on that.
I personally also think that the Riders Advisory Council — particularly David Alpert, Chris Schmitt, Kenneth DeGraff, and Diana Zinkl — have done an excellent job of airing the debate and asking detailed questions of the police department, and thank them for that. It’s time for a non-advisory, governing body to do the same. The WMATA Board of Directors has a tough act to follow.