Privacy SOS

Bay Area transit police conduct militarized training exercises with TSA

Screencap of KTVU coverage, courtesy @marymad

Apparently the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police, infamous for having shot dead unarmed Oakland resident Oscar Grant on a subway platform in 2009, are today conducting armed, joint exercises on trains with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) VIPR teams. From the BART website:

From 8:30am to 12:30pm on Friday, April 18, BART Police, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Bay Area law enforcement will be working with other local transit agencies to conduct joint security training exercises at the SFO, Embarcadero, West Oakland, and Coliseum BART stations.

The purpose of the training is to prepare for possible future emergencies.

The training should not affect service. Please do not be alarmed if you hear or observe activity related to this special training or if you see uniformed officers and police canine units accessing station areas, or emergency vehicles parked in station parking lots.

Don't be alarmed when masked men wearing all black board your train and point assault rifles at your face. Ok.

How, you might ask, is this happening? How can the federal government work with local police to conduct training exercises like this, on public trains, during busy commuting hours? 

Among the problems that got us here is that the federal government asserts we have no Fourth Amendment rights at the border, and claims that the border extends a full 100 miles inside the country. That extremely broad definition of "the border" means two-thirds of Americans live in the Constitution Free Zone. To give you a sense of the magnitude of this assertion, consider that both the Bay Area and the entire state of Massachusetts fall within this 100-mile rights-swallowing vortex.

In the past few years, TSA VIPR teams have quietly expanded their reach beyond airports to "sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations and train terminals." The teams conduct warrantless searches basically whenever agents feel like it. As the New York Times reported in August, 2013, civil libertarians are not pleased. 

“The problem with  T.S.A. stopping and searching people in public places outside the airport is that there are no real legal standards, or probable cause,” said Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “It’s something that is easily abused because the reason that they are conducting the stops is shrouded in secrecy.”

T.S.A. officials respond that the random searches are “special needs” or “administrative searches” that are exempt from probable cause because they further the government’s need to prevent terrorist attacks.

Created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the T.S.A. has grown to an agency of 56,000 people at 450 American airports. The VIPR teams were started in 2005, in part as a reaction to the Madrid train bombing in 2004 that killed 191 people.

The program now has a $100 million annual budget and is growing rapidly, increasing to several hundred people and 37 teams last year, up from 10 teams in 2008. T.S.A. records show that the teams ran more than 8,800 unannounced checkpoints and search operations with local law enforcement outside of airports last year, including those at the Indianapolis 500 and the Democratic and Republican national political conventions.

Oakland isn't known to take these kinds of rights assaults lightly. But even after the city council rejected the expansion of a massive domain awareness surveillance center, thanks to robust civic protest, it appears as if the federalization and militarization of local police in the city is continuing apace.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.