Washington Metro police began random inspections of passengers' bags and packages Tuesday morning, irritating some riders and reassuring others.
A handful of Metro Transit Police, bomb-sniffing dogs and Transportation Security Administration officers hastily set up inspection tables near the entrances to the Braddock Road and College Park stations, pulling aside customers with bags large enough to carry an explosive device.
Law enforcement officials have uncovered two alleged threats against Metro in recent weeks. Public transit systems around the world are considered a prime target for terrorists seeking to inflict mass casualties. On Tuesday, police in Rome found a bomb under the seat of a subway car. They later determined that it was defective.
Metro's bag inspections averaged about 30 seconds but ran as long as eight minutes in the case of one man whose bag tested positive for a chemical used in explosives. The bag was subsequently X-rayed. Police questioned the man, who they said was a government worker, and released him. "I'm going to work," the man said curtly as he strode to the fare gates.
The explosive traces "could have been from a gun or residue from target shooting if he went to a firing range," said Lt. Doug Durham of Metro Transit Police's Special Operations unit. Metro police have said that although false positives do occur with the hand-held explosives detection devices, follow-up inspections using X-ray machines or bomb-sniffing dogs should minimize cases in which bags are opened unnecessarily.
Civil liberties advocates said that the inspections, which were announced five days ago, could be challenged in Washington area courts on the grounds they violate the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.
"You are being required to stop. Lots of people will miss trains. You have to allow your bag to be swabbed and stand there while they put a piece of paper in the machine," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital.
The ACLU raised objections this week in a letter to Metro's general manager and board of directors.
Metro officials maintain that the screenings are constitutional and are currently conducted in Boston, New Jersey and New York, where they have been upheld in court.
A few commuters were taken aback by the inspections and initially declined to undergo them until they were informed that they were mandatory for entering the station to board trains, but no one approached by the police at Braddock Road refused altogether. Metro says that people are free to reject the bag inspection, but that if they do so, they will not be allowed to take the bag into the station.
Metro officials said police may set up searches at more than one entrance or use other methods to prevent passengers from simply going to another entrance. "We have other alternatives we won't disclose," Durham said.
Sgt. Scott Whitfield, of the Special Operations unit, was posted at the Braddock Road Station entrance Tuesday morning, summoning customers for inspection.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he told one woman. "We are doing random bag searches. It will take about 45 seconds of your time."
The woman started to walk away, but Whitfield told her that it was necessary to enter the station with her handbag. "I guess I will, then," the woman said.
She moved to a nearby table, where two TSA agents swiped her bag and put it through a reader. "Have a wonderful day," one of the agents said. "Happy holidays."
In one instance, Whitfield called over a Spanish-speaking Metro employee to assist a woman who did not understand English.
Whitfield said he was counting bags in order to pick which ones to inspect and ensure that the searches were random, adding that he was given a number for the count just five minutes before the inspections began. Metro declined to divulge that number for security reasons.
Some passengers were visibly angry at losing even a few seconds in their rush to work and questioned the value of the inspections.
Dawn Heuschel, who works for the U.S. Agency for International Development, regularly rides the Metro from Braddock Road to Foggy Bottom. "It's annoying, because I missed my train that was on the platform," she said.
TSA officers checked her purse and a Christmas present she was carrying. Heuschel was perplexed because the officers didn't look inside the items. "Frankly, I don't know what they did over here," she said.
Other riders were not bothered by the inspections, and some welcomed them.
"When we come here, we want to know we are just as safe as going on the airplane," said Mike Simons, who had his satchel inspected before heading to work at Pentagon City.
Metro police urged patience with the inspections, saying they hope the checks will deter potential bombers by creating a risk that they will be discovered. But they acknowledge that there are limitations to how thoroughly they can inspect bags in an open transit system.
"This is mass transit — it's not a sterile environment like an airport," Durham said.
Ultimately, Metro relies on passengers to notice and point out suspicious behavior, officials said.
"The whole point is raising passenger awareness," said Jeff C. McKay, a Metro board member from Fairfax County. "It's a lot more graphic to see a bag search than to hear an announcement."