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Are Metra's sniffers up to snuff?

(The following article by Frank Main was posted on the Chicago Sun Times website on February 26.)

CHICAGO -- A bomb-sniffing dog that protects the Chicago area's commuter rails failed to detect a pound of explosives concealed in luggage less than six feet from its nose -- and spent hours standing around, a CBS2/Chicago Sun-Times investigation found.

A dog and handler from Securitas Inc. did not react when an undercover tester walked past the team three times with the bag at Metra's Ogilvie Transportation Center earlier this month. The tester then placed the luggage in front of the dog for 30 seconds, but the team did not discover the explosives. The experiment was captured on a hidden video camera.

The camera also showed dog handlers sitting and talking for as much as two hours at a time during five separate visits to Metra stations between October and January. The handlers and dogs rarely moved from one spot.

Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said the dogs were never intended to detect bombs on passing commuters. Still, Metra officials were troubled by the video showing the dogs and handlers standing around, she said.

SEE IT FOR YOURSELF

You've read about the major security flaws in Chicago's Metra train system.
Now, see the undercover video for yourself.

CBS 2 News reporter Suzanne LeMignot and investigative producer Michele Youngerman will show you the troubling results of our secret security test.

"Tracking Your Security," a CBS 2 News/Chicago Sun-Times special report, airs at 10 p.m. tonight on CBS 2 News.

Metra expected the teams to work their entire shift searching Metra's downtown stations and train platforms for explosives when they were not checking out suspicious packages, Pardonnet said.

Metra investigates

"Our understanding was that they would be at different stations at different times, and not in the same place all day," she said.

But Tony Majka, regional president for Securitas, said the videotaped dogs and handlers were doing exactly what they were instructed to do. At the start of their shift, the handlers were told to conduct perimeter searches of Metra stations, Majka said. Then they would wait for orders from Metra police to search suspicious packages for explosives, Majka said. The dogs don't actively sniff for explosives unless a handler commands them, he said.

"The behavior on the tape was appropriate under the circumstances, given the way the animal has been trained and the way we have instructed our handlers to behave as well," Majka said, adding that the dogs are not trained to detect passing scents.

The Metra police department gave Securitas directions on what to do, Pardonnet said. An internal Metra investigation will explore why Securitas' dog handlers did not think they should continually search Metra property, she said.

"Our consultants will come in from Washington [today] and re-evaluate Securitas as our contractor," Pardonnet said.

The suicide bombers who attacked London's Underground last July caused rail agencies like Metra to take a hard look at their bomb-detection programs. Atlanta's MARTA rail system is deploying "personnel dogs" that sniff passengers for bombs at turnstiles and other high-traffic areas.

But Metra is taking a different approach, Pardonnet said.

"The intent was that the dog could identify explosives in a suspicious package and make random searches," she said. "We never intended for the dog to sniff out thousands of passengers a day and identify specific candidates."

Although Securitas says its dogs are not trained to identify passing scents of explosives, their noses still should pick up such odors -- especially if explosives are placed in front of them, experts said.

Ken Rewers, commander of the Cook County Sheriff's Police Bomb Squad, would not comment on the performance of the dogs at Metra. Generally, though, such a dog "should be able to pick up the odor permeating off the explosive material with someone walking by in a confined area" or in a package sitting near the dog, Rewers said.

Sheriff's dogs found powder

Rewers and other experts said national standards are needed to define what a bomb-detection dog should be able to do and what kinds of explosives it should be able to detect. He is on an advisory board working with the FBI to create such standards.

"You've got individuals out there that need to be watched," Rewers said. "You have individuals out there saying that they have an explosive detection dog; there should be some type of benchmark."

The hidden-camera test of the Securitas dog involved one pound of a substance sold in gun stores and found in certain bombs. A police officer packed the material so it would not ignite.

To see how other dogs might react to the same type and quantity of explosive powder, CBS2 and the Chicago Sun-Times also observed a test of two Cook County sheriff's bomb-detection dogs at sheriff's police headquarters in Maywood.

The test differed from the Metra experiment because the luggage containing the powder was placed in an outdoor parking lot and the dogs were actively searching for explosives. The dogs, Drago and Salo, both picked up the scent about 10 feet from the bag. They ran to the bag and sat down, indicating they found explosives, in about five seconds.

They also passed other tests, finding dynamite under the hood of a car and explosives hidden under one of five wooden boxes.

Such tests are critical for police departments and rail agencies like Metra to determine if their dogs are up to snuff. Last year, Metra dismissed two firms because their bomb-detection dogs flunked tests. As a result, Securitas was hired last March, winning a two-year contract for up to $600,000.

EUROPE ATTACKS RAISE FEARS

These European bombings heightened U.S. focus on rail security:

LONDON, July 21, 2005
Four nearly simultaneous attacks on three London subway trains and a double-decker bus failed to kill anyone. The explosive devices were either faulty or too small to cause bloodshed.

LONDON, July 7, 2005
Explosions on London's Underground train system and on a bus killed 52 people and four suicide bombers.

MADRID, March 11, 2004
Train bombings killed 191 people.

The union for Metra police officers warned Metra management last year of its concerns about the performance of PPC Inc. of Rockford and Executive Security Group Inc. of Iowa, which provided bomb dogs for Metra, Pardonnet said.

Metra contacted its security consultant, EWA, which arranged tests supervised by Don Harlan, a former Marine expert in bomb detection who trained dogs used to protect the president, Pardonnet said. The Cook County sheriff's office assisted Harlan by hiding the explosives used in the tests.

'It's disappointing'

Harlan "reported to us that he did not feel these dogs performed well, that they failed what would be his standard," Pardonnet said. "We were able to exercise our option not to use them anymore."

The CBS2/Chicago Sun-Times investigation found PPC owner Paul Cushing once worked with Russell Lee Ebersole, who is serving a 61/2-year prison term in Maryland for providing ill-trained dogs and handlers to government agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It's disappointing to become aware of that," Pardonnet said.

In 2000, Cushing had signed a $20,000 contract with Ebersole's Detector Dogs Against Drugs and Explosives and became one of the "dealerships" Ebersole set up in half a dozen cities, including Chicago. Cushing went through bomb detection training with Ebersole.

After 9/11, Cushing worked with Ebersole for about a month in Washington before securing his own contracts with Sears Tower and other Chicago buildings. A Sears Tower spokesman said he no longer guards the building.

In an interview, Cushing said he grew leery of Ebersole's methods when he worked with him in Washington. Cushing changed his company's name from DDADE of Chicago to PPC Inc. -- also called Explosive Labs K-9 Services -- when Ebersole was found guilty. He said he testified against Ebersole in federal court.

Cushing and Ron Farkas, owner of Executive Security Group, said they feel Metra set up their dogs to fail in last year's tests.

"It was a sham," said Farkas.

"I think the officials at Metra were misled by a third party, the union, which had an ulterior motive to get rid of our companies. I think Metra had a financial motive to get rid of us and find a cheaper company," said Farkas, whose firm was paid $162,207 from Metra between June 2004 and last March.

Farkas noted that the union for Metra police officers has a pending grievance saying sworn officers should handle bomb-detection dogs, not contract employees.

Cushing said he was never told why his two dogs failed, which Metra disputes.

Cushing said neither of his dogs that worked at Metra was associated with Ebersole.
"I got two dogs from him," Cushing said. "One died and one retired."

Turned down government's offer

The dogs that failed Metra's test were later certified as competent bomb dogs, Cushing said.

"Within a couple months of that, my dogs that supposedly failed this test were recertified by the U.S. Police Canine Association and the Department of Defense."

Cushing -- whose company earned $328,466 from Metra between January 2003 and last March -- said he holds a bomb-detection contract at an Air Force base near San Jose, Calif.

Metra hires such private contractors to provide bomb-detection dogs because Metra police are not trained or equipped to do such work, Pardonnet said.

She said the costs are prohibitive for Metra to hire a police supervisor for a bomb-detection program and dedicate officers to handle the dogs. Metra would have to pay for a vault to store explosives used to test the dogs and vehicles to transport them, she said.

"We are not experts in security and never claimed to be," Pardonnet said. "We are experts in transportation and transit."

Metra Executive Director Philip Pagano pointed out that Metra calls other police agencies' bomb squads when suspicious packages are found on Metra property. Still, Securitas is the "first responder" to suspicious packages found at downtown stations, Majka said.

Metra could have accepted free bomb-detection dogs from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, but rejected the offer. TSA also would have provided the rail system with training and annual evaluations. The offer was part of a safety initiative after the London and Madrid train bombings to boost rail security in 10 major U.S. cities.

The deal would have required Metra to provide police officers to handle the dogs. TSA would have provided partial reimbursement for the officers' salary and care of the dogs.

"It would be wonderful if the TSA wanted to use their dogs with their handlers on our system, but unfortunately that is not an option," Pardonnet said. "You don't see the operational people from airlines handling explosive sniffing dogs. TSA handles it for them."

TSA also offered dogs to the Chicago Transit Authority, which accepted them. Three Chicago Police officers and TSA bomb-detection dogs will patrol CTA rail lines after the officers are trained in Texas this spring.

CTA sometimes uses Securitas bomb-sniffing dogs as part of a four-year, $13 million security contract with the company. But that may change after the TSA dogs start working on the CTA lines.

"If we have our own dogs for explosive protection, there probably would not be a need for that," said Noelle Gaffney, a CTA spokeswoman. "I do not know if any decisions have been made on that."

Monday, February 27, 2006

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