Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The D.C. Metro's September 12 culture of 'See something, say something'

September 12, 2011 - 12:33 PM
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On alert for suspicious cannisters. (Photo: John Hendel)

I stepped onto the Metro trains this morning especially aware of the fact that it was September 12 — and that Metro had made it through the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks without any incident. Despite enhanced security and some threats, business continued as usual for WMATA this weekend. Even their Twitter feed remained undisturbed — the only @WMATA tweets on September 11 concerned the standard maddening single-tracking and delays.

"It was an uneventful weekend, from our perspective," said WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel. "Customers certainly noticed more police and K-9 inspections." 

There was also an uptick of reported suspicious bags and behavior over the weekend, as is typical with threat and enhanced wariness. Yet the culture of caution and fear never dissipated this morning of September 12, and I was especially reminded that as I walked the Rosslyn Metro station today. Just as I stepped off the escalators, a man in white shirt and khakis with a big sign on his back approached me. "Just some things to keep in mind," he told me as he handed me a one-page note topped by the famous phrase "If you see something, say something," with a list of what suspicious behavior may include and examples of suspicious objects. His giant sign, I soon noticed, featured a bag with a dialogue bubble emerging from it: "Psst! Suspicious bag here." 

The young man here at the escalators was one of three individuals passing out these flyers at the Rosslyn Metro station. They were all part of the Homeland Security street teams that will now occasionally take to the WMATA system. WMATA endured the chaos of September 11, 2001 surprisingly well, as I wrote about last week, but its legacy lives on among the trains and in this new initiative. In June, Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn told Congress that within the last year, the transit police received 60,000 calls and of those calls from the past six months, 339 involved suspicious person, packages, bomb threats, or similar concerns. Today seemed especially appropriate to spot a Homeland Security street team in action.

Chocolate strawberries
Terror bunny (Photo: Secure Transit)

"Are you guys at all the stations?" I asked one street team woman near the Rosslyn station exit. She told me no, that it was just at certain stations during rush hour. But the ongoing Homeland Security initiative is just beginning — "This is a new campaign," Stessel told me, and it began last week.

The Secure Transit website, a joint effort funded by Homeland Security and focusing on WMATA, the Maryland Transit Administration, and the VRE, has a full schedule of dates where these street teams are appearing. They visit "high traffic transit stations to raise awareness of warning signs of suspicious activities," the site says, and Rosslyn is the only station listed for today, 6 to 11 a.m.. Other scheduled visits included Navy Yard last Friday from 3 to 8 p.m. — their first visit ever, I imagine — and King Street on September 21. These street team visits are scheduled through October and November.

The Secure Transit site is a little unusual, loaded with colorful images to draw attention to its warnings. These wacky advertisement images include an elephant on a Metro train and baggage with Groucho glasses hooked onto them. The site title at the top of my browser was in all caps: "IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING." A cartoonish aesthetic sets the tone for the site's message, and not all of it struck me as right on (a link ostensibly to WMATA's Twitter page leads to Montgomery County's account, for instance). I'll definitely credit them with a flair for the eye-catching, which I imagine is their goal. The advertisements of the campaign, which include radio spots and big posters, will begin appearing soon. The notion of "see something, say something" is nothing new to Metro riders, of course. In one of my first Metro rides a couple years ago, I remember boarding a train that wouldn't move, when all of a sudden a transit officer entered and grabbed a black mysterious bag and removed it from the train. Automated messages constantly filter through the system hammering home this sense of caution, from Transit Police Chief Taborn, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and of course WMATA's Alice Riley. A paranoid sensibility naturally accompanies this line of thinking, despite the wisdom of caution, and people are watching and watched in countless ways. 7,000 cameras fill the Metro system, at least as of late June (81% of them are functional). 

Do these methods really make people more vigilant? Probably a little. As Stessel says, it's wise for riders to have that concern kicking around in the back of their mind. As the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. is a potential target. Still, the atmosphere is a vaguely chilling one, reminiscent of McCarthyism and 1984 and made all the stranger by the presence of a giant pink bunny juxtaposed against the unseen but undeniably present idea of a bomb.

"Anything that keeps people's attention and keeps them vigilant — it's important to have," Stessel said.

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