Only Latent Criminals Need Fear BusSafe Sweeps


Last Friday the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, which serves the Houston area, cheerfully announced that "patrons riding METRO on Friday, April 13, or any given day, may be sitting next to an undercover MPD [Metro Police Department] officer" (emphasis in the original). It explained that "the move to monitor and curtail crime on buses and trains is just one component of a much larger initiative called BusSafe—a national pilot program created by a peer advisory group of mass transit police chiefs and security directors," which "METRO's Police Department is adopting to enhance safety on the system." To kick off this swell safety-enhancing program, the transportation authority carried out "a synchronized counter-terrorism exercise" on Friday that included Houston police, Harris County deputy constables, and "representatives with the Transportation Security Administration" as well as transit cops. They were all there to "ride buses, perform random bag checks, and conduct K-9 sweeps, as well as place uniformed and plainclothes officers at Transit Centers and rail platforms to detect, prevent and address latent criminal activity or behavior."

Who could possibly be against safety enhancement, especially when it aims to prevent and address latent criminal activity and behavior? "Today," declared Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), "we announce that if you think you're going to be a bad actor on buses, get ready: You are going to have a short-lived time frame." In the same TV segment, Joel Eisenbaum, a reporter for Houston's NBC affiliate, chirped that BusSafe is "kind of akin to air marshals, but for buses," although he conceded that "safety apparently will come somewhat at the expense of civil liberties," since "these officers will be able to search bags at random," and "K-9s might be brought in." 

Writing in The Guardian, Jennifer Abel notes that Homeland Securty Secretary Janet Napolitano responded to complaints about the TSA's ritual humiliation of airplane passengers by advising touchy travelers to get from Point A to Point B "by some other means." But now that the TSA's Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams are wriggling their way into "bus terminals, train stations, [and] highways," she asks, "What's left? If you don't like it, walk." Abel notes that Rep. Jackson, a big TSA booster, says the government is only "looking to make sure that the lady I saw walking with a cane…knows that Metro cares as much about her as we do about building the light rail." Or as Abel puts it, "if you don't support the random harassment of ordinary people riding the bus to work, you're a callous bastard who doesn't care about little old ladies." I feel BusSafer already.

More on VIPR here. More on "consent" searches aboard buses here. In a 2005 column, I noted the largely obsequious response to random bag searches on New York City's subways.

[Thanks to Tricky Vic for the tip.]