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Amtrak’s Suspicious Activity Reporting Guidelines & the White Privilege of Freedom of Travel

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained a copy of guidelines for Amtrak customer service employees in Texas. The organization received it as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which it filed because individuals have been submitted reports indicating they were “wrongfully searched and arrested on Amtrak trains.” The company may also be using suspicious activity guidelines to target individuals in a civil asset forfeiture program.

Presumably, the guidelines are universally applied and utilized at various Amtrak train stations throughout the United States. The guidelines obtained are specifically for employees in Texas in the “southwest division.” But none of the guidelines are specific to Texas.

“Ticket Agents may come into contact with passengers and travelers whose conduct is questionable. Some individuals can have characteristics that may or may not be indicative of criminal activity, such as illegal drug trafficking,” the guidelines state [PDF]. “When taken alone certain characteristics are not illegal per se, however, one or more may form the basis for suspicious criminal activity.”

First off, the guidelines are contradictory. “Taken alone certain characteristics are not illegal per se.” Okay, agree. But, “one or…” Wait, but the guidelines say “alone certain characteristics are not illegal”?

Does an employee need to have witnessed more than one “characteristic” to report “suspicious activity” to the Amtrak Police and Security Department? (Of course, who wants to be the employee that took a chance and did not report the behavior?)

The list of “characteristics” to watch for include:

• Evasive path through train station

• Carrying little or no luggage

• Last minute reservation

• Traveling by an unusual itinerary (multi-changes in reservations)

• Carrying an unusually large amount of currency

• Purchase of tickets in cash

• Purchase tickets immediately prior to boarding

• Unusual nervousness of traveler

• Unusual calmness or straight ahead stare

• Looking around while making telephone call(s)

• Position among passengers disembarking (ahead of, or lagging behind passengers)

If a passenger is looking around while making telephone call(s) and happen to be unusually nervous, perhaps, that passenger is waiting for someone who is expected to join them on the trip. He or she is late, and the passenger is worried because the train is leaving the station soon.

If a passenger purchases tickets with cash immediately prior to boarding, it is likely the person has a busy work life like many Americans and did not get around to purchasing their ticket beforehand. They are using cash because they happen to have cash on them.

If they make a last minute reservation, have little to no luggage and only pay in cash, it is possible the passenger is poor. Maybe, the passenger is even homeless and managed to screw up some cash and is now trying to get somewhere they have been trying to go for a long time.

What if a person makes a last minute reservation and takes an “evasive path” through the train station? It could be that the passenger is late and taking the best route to get to the platform.

How about someone who takes an “evasive path” through the station and also is “unusually nervous”? They could be uncomfortable around lots of people.

Let’s imagine a person has a last minute reservation, purchased tickets immediately before boarding, has little to no luggage, took an “evasive path” to get to the ticket counter, happens to be on his or her cell phone and is looking around making phone calls and lags behind or disembarks ahead of passengers?

I bet that passenger works as part of management at a Wall Street firm, and he or she should definitely be reported to law enforcement as “suspicious.” He or she may also be carrying an “unusually large amount of currency.”

How does any ticket agent at Amtrak know a person has an “unusually large amount of currency”? What constitutes an “unusually large amount”? Does it depend on the clothes a passenger is wearing or whether that person has a certain color of skin?

Are there statistics to show when these kinds of reports have been submitted for whites, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, African-Americans, etc? Unless a person is flashing a a case of unmarked bills or carrying a duffel with shrink-wrapped cash bulging out of it, a ticket agent will have to engage in profiling.

For all of those “characteristics” or behaviors, a ticket agent will have to engage in profiling. Much of this behavior probably will send up zero flags if you are a white person in modestly clean clothing. It is when an African-American person does one or more of these things that they will be suspected of “drug trafficking.” It is when an Arab does one or more of these things that they will be suspected of “terrorism.”

Samia Hossain of the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project adds important context to these guidelines and why they are of significant interest:

While we’re particularly interested in how Amtrak is collecting, tracking, and sharing our data — including through new technologies — we have yet to receive information relevant to those questions. But we do know that Amtrak police has not reported a single instance of finding and catching a potential terrorist or serious threat as a result of its suspicious activity reports. Instead, it has filled its trophy case with victories like arresting a black woman because passengers felt she was speaking too loudly on the phone, arresting a black man because another passenger falsely stated he threatened her, and even arresting a photographer because he was taking pictures of a train for the annual Amtrak “Picture our Train” competition (update here).

We have reason to believe that Amtrak’s policies also provide grounds for civil asset forfeiture, a process that effectively allows cops to engage in highway robbery, and often results in racial profiling. The documents we received include agreements between Amtrak and the Las Vegas Police Department, Reno Police Department, and Louisiana state police. The agreements not only officially enable a practice of confiscating money and property from passengers without due process, but also mandate “[e]quitable sharing of forfeited assets;” in other words, state agencies get a cut of assets seized by Amtrak police. Reports of asset forfeiture indicate that the police target those they associate with criminal behavior and drug trafficking – black and Latino men.

Remarkably, the guidelines actually list being unusually nervous as well as being unusually calm as “suspicious” behavior, which is probably quite the Catch-22 for any person not of Anglo-Saxon origin. It is also possible to be suspicious if you disembark first or last and that’s also a Catch-22.

If purchasing tickets at the last minute is suspicious, what about purchasing them too early?

If carrying too little baggage is suspicious, what about carrying way too many bags for one person to handle?

If purchasing tickets with cash is suspicious, what about doing it well in advance with a credit card?

If looking around while making telephone calls is suspicious, what about not being on the phone at all? What about looking around while listening to an iPod? What about singing while listening to an iPod and looking around?

These are questions no white person will ever feel like they have to ask themselves while in an Amtrak station. People of color, however, have to worry about these ridiculous questions.

Finally, what makes these guidelines even more creepy is this sentence, “All Amtrak employees are expected to assist the Corporation in maintaining a safe and secure environment for passengers and fellow employees by being alert and aware of their surroundings.”

The Corporation. With a creepy capital “C.”

Non-white people, enter the dystopian security state world created by Amtrak if you dare. You may get shaken down as part of a lucrative arrangement involving legalized robbery. Or, you may find yourself criminalized for erratic and common behavior that white people have the privilege to engage in on a daily basis without experiencing any anxiety or fear.

Creative Commons-Licensed Photo on Flickr by Rennett Stowe

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."