The Metro Transit Police Department recently announced that it was resuming the practice of assigning bag search units to random Metro stations for random bag searches of persons seeking to enter the WMATA Metro system. Speaking on November 16, Chief Ron Pavlik claimed that the measures are designed “… to assure riders as well as employees that Metro operates a safe system.”
We disagree, and know many of our supporters do as well. For one overview of issues with random bag searches, see “Are Metro bag searches really that bad?“:
Part of what’s at stake here is maybe captured in that Southwest Airlines ad line that says we should be “free to move about the country.” It’s important that we carry our our rights with us wherever we go, including the right to be free from unreasonable searches. This is the very definition of an unreasonable search — for no reason (at least for no disputable reason), you are pulled aside and subjected to a search. […]
…these searches aren’t just unconstitutional — they’re stupid. And they’re not just stupid — they’re stupid by definition. What program of unreasonable, suspicionless (and unconstitutional) searches is going to be better than a program relying on reasonable (and constitutional) ones based on real suspicions?
WMATA and the MTPD have claimed that the random bag search process avoids profiling. While not admitting to it initially, the MTPD subsequently revealed that persons refusing bag searches were followed and reported to federal agencies.
For any law enforcement system to be truly accountable to the public, it must be able to demonstrate that its policies and procedures are functioning as intended. In this case, this includes demonstrating that stations and times chosen for bag search units are truly random, that persons requested to submit to a bag search are truly chosen in the manner described*, and elaborating on the surveillance and record consequences someone faces if they exercise their constitutional right not to be searched.
Accordingly, using the online service “MuckRock“, we’re filing a “Public Access Records Policy” (PARP) request — a kind of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request under WMATA’s charter — with the Metro Transit Police Department. We are requesting documents necessary and sufficient to determine…
(1) the locations, dates, and times of bag search unit deployments from December 16, 2010 (the date of a first news release about the bag search program) to December 31, 2015, and, for the same time period,
(2) internal quality assurance protocols and records that bag search deployments are in fact carried out at random locations and times, and that persons requested to submit to bag searches there are in fact selected on an “every Xth person” or some similar random basis,
(3) annual numbers of false positives encountered (i.e., bags deemed to contain explosives by testing equipment that in fact did not),
(4) annual numbers of bag search refusals encountered and what actions were then taken towards these persons, and
(5) annual numbers of persons reported to federal, state, local, or joint law enforcement agencies on the basis of
(a) bag searches and
(b) bag search refusals.
(6) annual costs of the bag search program, and annual grants or other outside funding sources defraying all or part of those costs.
(7) any cost-benefit analyses or program evaluations of the bag search program performed by or made available to WMATA and/or the MTPD.”
Note that in no case are we requesting private information about any particular person. Note also that…
- if WMATA and MTPD plead that security considerations preclude release of any or all data for requests (1) and (2), that will be the extent to which they’re unwilling to disprove that they’re engaging in racial and/or other forms of profiling;
- if WMATA and MTPD refuse to answer (3), that will be the extent to which the public remains uninformed about the accuracy of the bag search program;
- if WMATA and MTPD refuse to answer (4) and (5), that will be the extent to which the public remains uninformed about the serious negative consequences of exercising their constitutional right to refuse a bag search; and
- if WMATA and MTPD refuse to answer (6) and (7), the public remains uninformed about the costs, supporters, and purported benefits of the bag search program, assuming WMATA and MTPD have estimated them at all.
We will keep you posted on the progress of our request. The “MuckRock” records of that request to WMATA and any future responses can be viewed here.
* MTPD has claimed in the past that “A number is selected (for example, every 12th customer with a bag) and customers are identified for carry on inspections based exclusively on the number.”