The legality of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams Teams have been questioned by many, although authorized under 6 U.S.C. § 1112 , stating that the mission is to “augment the security of any mode of transportation at any location within the United States,” even a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attorney states why Travelers Need Not Submit To TSA VIPR Teams.
Over the past few years I have spent a considerable amount of time researching, watching and writing about TSA VIPR teams, but last night was my first encounter with a VIPR Team stopping me and asking to search my bag.
Last night as I got off the Metro North Rail Road train at New Haven’s Union Station and walked through the tunnel from the platform to the station I took a few moments to stop and watch a group of men in “Department of Homeland Security POLICE” jackets milling among passengers with Amtrak Police Officers. I like to watch VIPR Teams work, and it became apparent to me that I was being watched watching them, but that is not uncommon.
As I made my way through the tunnel I was politely stopped by one of the TSA VIPR agents who asked if they could investigate an antenna sticking up out of the outside pocket of my brief case. Quickly pondering if it was worth the argument to refuse, or in my best interest to actually watch what happens from the point of view of someone being searched, I told them they were welcome to see what the antenna was sticking out from my bag. In the process of being walked away from the commuters I threw them for a loop by asking certain questions about what department they came from, and about their specific job titles, but that only served to have the Amtrak Police Officers called over as well … and no, I wasn’t worried.
The TSA VIPR agent who had his hand on my bag only checked one thing, what was the antenna attached to. The answer to that question was exactly what I told them it would be, a Uniden 396xt digital scanner. I usually have a scanner with me, mine has systems set up to monitor police and public safety throughout the region, although one of the labels really caught their attention (I keep common systems I listen to labeled on the front for quick reference), this label reads
21 – CBP ICE
22 – TSA ICE DHS
These systems are set up to the primary Customs & Border Protection and Immigrations Customs Enforcement frequencies for one system and the other system clones the standard 13 channel TSA radio layout, with about 30 other TSA frequencies in use at airports in the United States, as well as certain ICE frequencies and DHS common frequencies. The Amtrak Police Officers asked about the system labeled NY/CT Rail, and I was open with them about what frequencies are in there, why I listen to them and that neither the scanner nor my use of it were in any violation of the law.
I went to snap a photo of my radio being looked over, which was interesting as they never turned it on, just sort of stared at it, when one VIPR Agent stepped in front of my lens preventing any photo and I was asked to not shoot any photos that showed the Amtrak or Amtrak Police logos “due to heightened security related to the Super Bowl“, which made no sense what so ever.
How would an Amtrak logo in a photo create any sort of security risk, especially as it is in direct contrast with Amtrak’s photograph policy, the Super Bowl is being played in New Jersey and we were in Connecticut 83 miles away? As I was handed the radio back I went to shoot a photo to post this little incident for Instagram and it was suggested I shoot the photo on the MTA Police desk instead … so it seems Amtrak logos pose a security risk, but Metropolitan Transit Authority logos pose no security risk.
While it had been pointed out by aviation journalism Jason Rabinowitz that the TSA VIPR Team was being observant in noticing the antenna, I believe they noticed me watching them and the antenna was just the open door to stopping me and talking to me about why I was watching them, although they never asked me that question. Overall, I have to wonder if the VIPR Team really thought I was a risk. Why did they only want to see what the antenna was attached to? Why not open my bag and look inside? They would have found all sorts of things, like a large battery, three smaller batteries, a clear-coil headset, a knife, a gaggle of cords, a Finnair notebook, Macbook Air, iPad Mini and a bottle of Snapple lemon tea.
Ultimately, the experience was quick and painless, but left me wondering exactly what the VIPR Teams were looking for. I was apparently, by my observations, the only person stopped or even spoken to as passengers filed into the station from a loaded rush-hour Metro North train and an Amtrak train.
Below is a photo of my radio and the MTA Police desk … since the TSA VIPR agents and Amtrak Police determined that the MTA logo in a photo was not a security risk.