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MBTA police begin screening of riders' bags

(The following article by Anthony Flint was posted on the Boston Globe website on July 23.)

BOSTON -- The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority became the first mass transit system in the country yesterday to inspect the bags of passengers as teams of T police stopped nearly 250 subway and commuter rail riders at four stations and screened handbags, briefcases, and backpacks for explosives.

Police stopped every 11th Boston-bound commuter at rail stations in Holbrook and Salem at daybreak yesterday and set up inspection stations at the Riverside Green Line station in Newton and the Framingham commuter rail station in the evening.

The officers will be out at undisclosed locations again this morning; the inspections will intensify as next week's Democratic National Convention approaches.

The T Riders Union, an organization representing regular users of the system, protested the policy in Roxbury yesterday afternoon, alleging that officers would lapse into racial and ethnic profiling.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts promised a lawsuit, alleging that the checks violate the Constitution's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

''It's kind of scary, seeing all these police here," said Joanne Belmonte of Randolph, who was headed for South Station and greeted yesterday at 7:15 a.m. by eight armed, dark-uniformed officers at the entrance to the Holbrook-Randolph commuter rail platform. ''I'm not comfortable with it at all."

Police funneled more than 350 commuters into a single entrance to the platform at the Holbrook station, on the Randolph line about 15 miles south of Boston, and sealed off alternate entry points.

They stopped about 30 people and brought them to a table where their bags were swabbed with a sensor pad, which was run through a General Electric explosive-sensing machine. A bomb-sniffing dog was kept nearby. The process took between five and 10 seconds.

The MBTA police chief, Joseph Carter, greeted passengers and explained the policy to them. Later in the day in Boston he told reporters that the inspections were necessary because of federal warnings of a possible terrorist attack on transit systems in cities hosting political conventions and the March 11 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid.

''Our focus is explosives or other dangerous weapons that could be used to kill or injure multiple victims on the mass transit system," Carter said at MBTA police headquarters. ''No single policy will provide perfect protection against a determined terrorist. However, we are committed to working with and informing the public of the need to become more security-conscious."

During the evening rush hour at Riverside Station, the terminus of the D branch of the Green Line, inbound commuters who reached the top of the steps to the platform were met by five MBTA police officers who were checking bags randomly. Some riders, many dressed for last night's Red Sox game at Fenway Park, looked a bit confused, but they complied.

Starting Monday, MBTA police will be joined by other law enforcement agencies, including the National Guard, when baggage screening will be set up before passengers enter the T system -- subways, commuter rail, buses, or ferries. Inspection teams will use the GE machine, bomb-sniffing dogs, and, as a last resort, a manual search, Carter said. At some locations, carry-on items of every passenger will be inspected, he said.

About 1.1 million people use the T every weekday, and several thousands more are expected to use the system next week, when major roadways will be closed in the evenings. The inspections will almost certainly create delays at the busiest stations, although Carter emphasized that the screening takes only about 10 seconds, and that commuter trains will be held for any passenger who is stopped for an inspection.

Passengers can refuse an inspection but will be denied entrance to the system if they do, Carter said, and will be charged with trespassing if they are asked to leave MBTA property and refuse.

''This is an end run around the Fourth Amendment, without making anyone safer," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which is asking anyone who is searched to fill out a form on the organization's website describing what happened to them.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. Rose said the ACLU would probably take legal action, although not necessarily during convention week.

''The greater concern is whether this is a permanent policy," she said.

The MBTA general manager, Michael Mulhern, has said that inspections will continue after the convention, but that the T would assess the policy first and decide how to implement it most effectively, possibly only during high-security alerts.

The T Riders Union staged an afternoon protest with about 20 people outside the Roxbury Crossing Orange Line station. .

''We believe our rights are being violated," said Khalida Smalls, coordinator for the group, expressing concern that Arab-Americans, as well as Latinos and African-Americans, will be targeted. ''We believe the MBTA police will abuse and use their bias to make the searches," she said.

At the commuter rail stations in Holbrook and Salem yesterday morning, however, most passengers said they accepted the new policy. In Salem, a team of seven MBTA officers searched 95 of the 1,100 Boston-bound passengers.

Friday, July 23, 2004

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