Wednesday, January 14, 2009

METRA police search entire train over apparently unconfirmed report of a man with a gun

This morning, according to the Chicago Tribune, Metra police in Lisle, Illinois stopped an express commuter train and forced everyone to disembark and be searched for weapons after an anonymous individual called police to say that he overheard another passenger say he had a gun.  Details are still sketchy, but based on what I've read this is an overreaction and a massive intrusion on personal privacy.

Stopping the train and searching everyone is going to seriously inconvenience everyone on the train; some of the people thus inconvenienced may well lose their jobs for being late to work.  Some employers are not even remotely sympathetic regarding tardiness even in ordinary times, and with today's economy employers often use any excuse whatsoever to terminate employees that they view as "surplus".  If all the police have is an anonymous tipster who merely overheard another person say he has a gun, there just isn't enough cause to justify searching everyone.  What if the tipster mistook or misunderstood what the other person said?  What if the tipster imagined the entire incident, or made it up? 

I would think a more reasonable response would be to have transit police board the train and take up station, one or two in each car and observe, and take further action only if they then observed suspicious behavior.  That course of action would likely be sufficient to prevent harm in the event the report were true (for even if it is true, there's no still no evidence that the person who said he has a gun meant to do anything harmful or even illegal), and would not have massively delayed or even seriously inconvenienced, not to mention forced hundreds of innocent commuters to be subjected to searches without probable cause, compromising their constitutional freedoms.

I'm hoping that as more becomes known about this incident, we'll find out more about the specificity of the report made to the police.

Update: The police are now stating that a "suspicious man" was asking "unusual questions that were security-based" at the Naperville station, and that they stopped the train to search for him.  That would not explain why passengers were being searched for weapons.