If you think you look suspicious, Amtrak employees have probably been trained to watch out for you — and if you don't think you look suspicious, Amtrak's crews might be watching you even more closely.
Image via Justin Brown/flickr
As Amtrak security guidelines obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union reveal, Amtrak employees are officially instructed to watch for all sorts of "suspicious" behavior — some of which might be considered completely normal, including:
- 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)
- Carrying little or no luggage
- Purchase of tickets in cash
- Purchase tickets immediately prior to boarding
Strolling leisurely behind other passengers, walking briskly because you're in a hurry, appearing to be calm — all are "suspicious" behaviors.
How could Amtrak's criteria be applied on everyday train rides?
Samia Hossain, a fellow with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a Huffington Post article last week that a broad definition of "suspicious" behavior, such as Amtrak's guidelines, "almost always results in racial and religious profiling" and such definitions actually hinder law enforcement by creating "mountains of irrelevant data."
Hossain claimed that Amtrak's suspicious behavior guidelines lead to racist arrests, and that civil asset forfeiture allows Amtrak to basically steal money from "suspicious" passengers and share the confiscated cash with local police departments:
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.
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.
In the vintage stock photo below, all three passengers and even the guy selling refreshments could easily be deemed "suspicious" under Amtrak's standards — just look at the "unusual nervousness" of the man in the front and the "straight-ahead stare" on everyone else's faces.
A quick scenario: Amtrak employees deem the man wearing a hat in the back, because of his "straight-ahead stare," to be suspicious, so they search him, find that he's carrying a large amount of cash and confiscate the money.
It could happen — but should it?
(H/T: Tech Dirt)
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