Every weekday, some 600,000 people take public transportation in the nation's capital. En route to their destinations, they read, listen to portable tape players, talk with friends and even catch a short nap. Recently, they've been asked to be on the alert for "suspicious people or unusual activity". Metro workers have distributed leaflets describing what to look for: "someone acting nervous or sweating, carrying a sprayer bottle or aerosol canister or wearing inappropriate clothes such an unusually baggy jacket."
Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson says that, in general, passengers need to be vigilant for anything "out of the ordinary." "Is there some sort of behavior triggering something in you that makes you [tend to think,] 'Hmm, is this something I should bring to the attention of Metro transit police or a Metro worker in uniform?' That's what we're trying to make people aware of," she says.
The transit agency employs about 400 armed security officers, who patrol more than 80 stations, about 800 rail cars and 1,400 buses. Spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson adds that Metro also has an extensive camera surveillance system. "[We have] a monitoring system in an office in our operation control center that can look at the total rail system. We have 103 miles [165 kilometers]of rail track. And we can monitor from that central location," she says
Passengers I talked to had varying reactions to the call for greater vigilance on their part.
"It's a good idea because of the problems we're having over here in the United States with the terrorists and all. I think it would be good to have something as a precaution for people to look for when they're on the train…"
"I'll be careful and vigilant and try to be sensible…"
"You know, something for people to look out for that's basically what it's for…"
"Seems to me that at this point with all the information that's out there, all it will do is serve to scare more people, but who knows? Every little bit helps."
"Washington, D.C., is one of the most widely, ethnically diverse areas of the country. So the idea of being 'suspicious looking' is, in itself, suspicious in my mind. I'm not sure what 'suspicious' would mean in this context."
Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson says the brochures distributed to the public are an effort to "inform" not "alarm" riders - and let them know that, as she puts it, "Metro is doing everything it humanly, possibly can to keep the system safe."