Taborn: bag search refusers will “be observed”

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.

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27 Responses to Taborn: bag search refusers will “be observed”

  1. judyinwash says:

    And that is just another reason why I won’t ride the bus! Just another way to intimidate and induce fear in the people.


  2. nb says:

    and that is why we all SHOULD ride the bus, and all SHOULD refuse a search… a day or hour of action in our future?


  3. Absolutely. And when they say ‘go ahead, refuse the search, we don’t care, see ya,’ what would also be interesting would be to try to watch the watchers — see if it can be determined what they do re “be observ[ers], be watch[ers].”


  4. Ben Schumin says:

    Does anyone else get the feeling that everyone would be better off if Michael Taborn was ousted from Metro? Seriously – I think it’s time for a change in leadership at the MTPD.


  5. Kate says:

    I’ve never been searched. Maybe I would feel differently if I perceived myself to be a victim of over-policing or profiling. But as it stands, I am glad that officers have the right to search bags in the metro. Is that really what you guys are against? Don’t ride the metro, that’s fine with me. But please don’t f- up my commute with some lame “make ’em wait” protest.


    • No, I’m against officers having the ongoing right to search bags in the metro without cause, when the MTPD admits there’s “no credible threat to the system.” If they have reason to suspect someone is intending harm, that’s one thing. As it stands, this policy is another. — You may not perceive yourself to be a victim of over-policing or profiling, but your perception isn’t the measure of whether it’s happening, or whether others have a point in feeling that way. Check out the Washington Post series “Monitoring America” (December 2010) re metastasizing surveillance in this country, and “Platform for Prejudice” for one article among many re accelerating the slide towards profiling. — Meanwhile, I don’t think anyone intends to “f- up your commute with a ‘make em wait’ protest.” Rather, I think nb was simply suggesting that we refuse to let our bags be searched, regardless of whether that subjects us to further scrutiny.


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  7. Today it’s the Metro, tomorrow it’s your car, your office, your kids’ school, your home…Where will it end? DO YOU FEEL SAFE YET?


  8. Bahran Emandad says:

    To Kate–It’s everyone’s problem. You may not see that yet, but look at how this country is going…the body scanners take naked photos of people and/or TSA agents grope you until they touch genitals, xray scanners are deployed on streets (see Christian Science Monitor for article), bag searches start at Metro. We’re slowly moving toward a police state where your every move will be recorded. You may say, “but I don’t do anything wrong!” Well, read the history of Eastern Germany. Many people there did not “do anything wrong” and they had their lives ruined.


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  10. Lisa Simeone says:

    Kate says: I am glad that officers have the right to search bags in the metro. Is that really what you guys are against? Don’t ride the metro, that’s fine with me. But please don’t f- up my commute with some lame “make ‘em wait” protest.

    Gee, Kate, we’re so sorry the Constitution inconveniences you. After all, wouldn’t wanna do that. I mean, “convenience” being so much more important than the Bill of Rights. What the heck, let’s all be searched! All the time! After all, gotta keep us safe from The Terrorists! The Terrorists are always Around Every Corner! Yeah, Kate, swabbing your bag and confiscating your lipstick and mascara is really keeping us safe.

    But “convenience” trumps all for the sheeple. Do you think it was convenient for citizens to integrate lunch counters? Do you think it was convenient for them to boycott buses and have to walk miles every day? Learn some history. Protest isn’t convenient. It’s essential.

    People who don’t value their rights don’t deserve to keep them. Unfortunately, they ruin it for the rest of us who do value them. It’s this kind of complacency that has allowed increasing TSA abuse at the airports, so it’s no surprise that that abuse is being implemented everywhere else. Every time we acquiesce, to every new intrusive boneheaded procedure, we just make it easier for the powers-that-be to introduce another, and another, and another invasive practice, secure in the knowledge that the sheeple will go along with it. The tiny — the miniscule — bit of courage it takes to stand up and say, “No, I won’t put up with this” — even that eludes most of the so-called citizens in this country. How can we ever hope to prevent more repressive attacks on our civil liberties when people can’t even be bothered to stand up to such small ones?

    I’ve already stopped flying because of TSA abuse. I sure as hell won’t allow them to “randomly” search my bag in the Metro. I still think the 4th Amendment means something. I don’t think the Constitution is just some quaint document, unlike Kate and her ilk. I will refuse to let them swab or search my bag, I will speak up about it, and I will laugh in their faces if they try to “observe” me. Observe away, police-state minions. There are still some of us out here who won’t put up with your nonsense.


  11. P Hain says:

    For those of you who have forgotten your fifth grade social studies, maybe you should refresh your memory of the fourth amendment of the Constitution of the United States which seems to have lost its importance. What have we become?
    “…The Fourth Amendment (Amendment IV) to the United States Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures when the searched party has a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. The amendment specifically also requires search and arrest warrants be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. It was adopted as a response to the abuse of the writ of assistance, which is a type of general search warrant, in the American Revolution. Search and arrest should be limited in scope according to specific information supplied to the issuing court, usually by a law enforcement officer, who has sworn by it.”


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  13. Sungold says:

    I too believe that we need to preserve our Fourth Amendment rights. “Observation,” in this case, is clearly meant to be coercive and punitive – to discourage people from exercising their rights.

    Random searches without probable cause are an erosion of our right to privacy. (Yes, I know there’s no explicit language on privacy in the Constitution, but SCOTUS decisions such as Griswold have interpreted various amendments to guarantee privacy rights).

    Wiretapping every phone in the U.S. and intercepting every email wouldn’t “inconvenience” me, either, but it would mean we’ve finally become a full-fledged police state. The PATRIOT Act already takes us some distance down that road. We have to draw a line before we squander all of our most basic liberties in the name of our “safety.”


  14. It is violative of your Fourth Amendment rights when an agent of the government, for no reason other than the fact that someone wants to go from point A to point B, forces or coerces said person to submit to a search of personal belongings for which he would have a normal expectation of privacy. I think what we’re seeing here is a government that has, little by little, pushed citizens toward giving up such important rights, first by insisting they need to violate them (randomly search us without probable cause) to keep airplanes safe from hijackers with guns or knives and suicide bombers, and then by stepping up the frequency and invasiveness of those searches at the airport–full-body naked scanners and body groping by the TSA–and now, by implementing random searches on ordinary citizens commuting or traveling via bus, subway, and train.

    It’s important to remember that we have the right to refuse these searches. And that we must politely but firmly tell the agents why. If enough people stand up to them and say “No thanks!”, think of all the spare pairs of eyes they’re going to need to carry out all that “extra scrutiny” activity–it simply won’t be doable, not if (and only if) people set aside the issue of personal convenience and stand up, en masse, for the rights that are ours; the rights that our forbears fought and died for; the rights that we’re going to see evaporate completely in the not-so-distant future. Those whose positions of authority (and big Homeland Security contracts) depend on America turning into a security state would just as soon have everyone take the attitude of some posters here–“Oh, it’s not that big a deal, and I don’t want to be inconvenienced, why not just go along?”.


  15. Lisa, Sungold, Deborah, Ben — I hope you’ll consider writing about this revelation at your blogs, it may help to bring the whole program down if enough people learn about it and make a stink about it with WMATA (


  16. libertyanne says:

    I’ve heard the Republicans are considering cuts in the Homeland Security budget. We can only hope this will affect how the Faciests will monitor our every move.
    This country gets less free every day, (not that it ever really was just ask blacks, Indians and gays)and its amazing to see how many just lay down and take i


  17. ballgame says:

    It’s disturbing to witness the slow, casual dismemberment of our civil liberties.

    Great blog and excellent post, Thomas.


  18. Penny Harris says:

    As I heard someone say today “our privacy is all but gone, the best we can hope for is civility. ” You could say that fear dominates but I also think that the government function is to assure it’s survival. For me, it is scary as we don’t know how far these privacy infringements will go.


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