Spencer Lancaster, a street musician performing outside the Gallery Place/Chinatown subway station, clasped his hands when Officer Salicia Belton emerged from the escalator.
“This one’s for you,” he said, launching into a whistling rendition of the James Bond theme by blowing into his hands and moving his fingers to play the notes.
Belton smiled. “He’s here all the time,” she said. “He knows the rules.... He knows just how far away to stand from the entrance.”
Lancaster and other street performers add to the list of things Belton and her fellow officers of RATS -- the Rail Anti-crime Target Squad -- must keep an eye on as they patrol the 103 miles of tunnels and tracks that wind through the nation’s capital and into neighboring Maryland and Virginia.
Belton, 32, a squad member for three years, is constantly on the alert for pickpockets, panhandlers and soda pop. “I think it’s great,” she said of Metro’s strict policies. “Nobody wants to sit in someone else’s food.”
Under Metro regulations, it is against the law “to smoke, eat, drink, transport dangerous/flammable materials, spit, transport animals (with the exception of service animals), and use audio/video devices without earphones.”
Live music -- which includes Lancaster and his movie-theme whistling -- is also forbidden, as is littering.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has always insisted on a near-zero-tolerance policy to keep the subway clean, safe and rider-friendly. But the task of balance has never proved easy for Metro’s transit police, who have been the target of numerous complaints about overzealous enforcement.
In September, for example, a Metro officer asked a pregnant woman using a cellphone to lower her voice. Their disagreement escalated to the point that the officer wrestled her to the ground and handcuffed her; charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest were dismissed a month later.
In July, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who had not yet passed through the turnstile was arrested for chewing the last bits of a chocolate bar after she had been told by a Metro officer that eating in the station was forbidden. She was fined $10.
In October 2000, a 12-year-old girl was placed in handcuffs for eating a single French fry on a boarding platform. A federal court later ruled that the arrest was “foolish,” but that her Constitutional rights had not been violated. Metro has since ceased handcuffing minors for eating.
An incident in 1987, involving a participant in the Iran-Contra scandal and a banana, shows that run-ins with the low-tolerance policy are nothing new. An officer at the Red Line’s Metro Center station issued a $10 citation -- for eating on Metro property -- to Fawn Hall, the secretary who shredded National Security Council documents for Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.
The strict policies of Washington’s Metro system were adopted from the beginning to create a different type of experience for riders than Boston’s T and New York’s subway offered.
Zachary Schrag, an assistant professor at George Mason University who wrote his dissertation on the history of the Washington subway, said that back in 1967, Metro officials knew they had to come up with something that would lure people out of their automobiles. They looked at the big city up the coast for some lessons on what not to do.
By the 1960s, the New York subway system, notorious for rats and graffiti, had earned a reputation for filthiness and crime. So, Schrag said, “the template for Metro was to build something as far from New York as possible.”
The system’s designers and policy-makers came up with a plan: Provide a unique, pleasant aesthetic and keep a tight rein on its day-to-day operations, and the customers would come.
The Metro’s spacious concrete tunnels are connected to the surface by elevators and escalators, including the longest in the Western Hemisphere -- 230 feet -- at the Red Line’s Wheaton station. The tunnels form the country’s second-largest rail transit system, providing passage for about 700,000 people a day.
The Metro has its own 385-member force, including the RATS program, designed to hold court over not one jurisdiction, but three: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Officers such as Belton must know when an offense may warrant a fine in one state but an arrest in another, and when the state line has been crossed.
The publicity this year over the confrontations between the transit police and the public -- and the outcry those incidents sparked within the community -- led to a series of moves by the agency to try to ease tensions.
On Nov. 16, about 250 Metro riders attended the system’s first town hall meeting in its 28 years. The exchange between Metro officials and the public covered an array of subjects -- including anti-terrorism efforts and bus drivers talking on cellphones.
And this weekend, 20 officers are learning “verbal judo,” a pilot program to train them how to better handle unruly customers by using words, rather than force, to encourage compliance.
To better understand the riders’ daily grind, Metro’s chief executive, Richard A. White, began commuting to work by subway in October -- four years after he took the job.
All the discussion has shed light on a divide among Metro’s riders.
“Veteran riders, they love it,” Lt. Ronald Pavlik, who has been an officer with Metro for 10 years, said about the system’s policy. “The newer riders are more like ... ‘You locked them up for eating?’ ”
About 40% of Metro’s riders favor the low-tolerance policy and 60% against it, Pavlik said, adding, “It’s all about perception.”