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Bag checks, safety measures mark Metro after 9/11

Tuesday - 9/6/2011, 3:06pm  ET

Metro bag search (WTOP Photo/Adam Tuss)
Metro's random bag search program has drawn criticism from civil liberties groups, but GM Richard Sarles says the searches will stay during his tenure. (WTOP/Adam Tuss)

Adam Tuss, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Much has changed since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, including the way we get around.

Metro is a prime example.

As the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches, Metro is now outfitted with more surveillance cameras than ever. Riders pass by trash cans designed to absorb the blast of a bomb. Metro Transit Police regularly team up with local and federal authorities to conduct high-visibility enforcement campaigns aimed at deterring terrorist activity.

And perhaps most notably, Metro riders are now subject to random bag searches throughout the system.

"The reality is that it is an open environment, and the threat is always there. It is real," former Metro Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson tells WTOP.

Now working for the federal government as director of the Office of Law Enforcement and Security at the Department of the Interior, Hanson took over as Metro Transit Police Chief just months after Sept. 11.

Hanson came up with the plan for random bag checks -- although during her tenure, she was never given the green light by the Metro Board of Directors to implement them.

"I had actually come up with a plan before anybody else was searching bags. The program designed while I was the chief is probably one of the best programs," says Hanson. "I understand the criticism, (but) I think that when you have information that you may not be able to share with your public about people and things and places and times, it is an appropriate tool to put out."

Local civil liberties groups have pushed back against Metro, questioning the constitutionality of the searches, while Metro's Riders' Advisory Council also asked that the program be halted. At a recent meeting, Metro Board member Kathy Porter expressed concern that the program was more or less "forced" without much public discussion.

But Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has said as long as he is in charge, the bag checks will stay in place.

Last December, a teenager carrying two rifle bags filled with guns and ammunition was stopped by station managers at the Franconia-Springfield station and later arrested. Although it wasn't a direct result of the random bag search program, the station managers were heralded for their increased awareness about suspicious activity in the system.

Hanson thinks the random searches, as well as other enhancements on Metro and throughout the region, have upgraded the security of the transit system.

"We are better off," she says. "It doesn't mean that nothing is going to happen. But hopefully if it does, the response is better."

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)