Uniformed Department of Homeland Security officers seen patrolling BART trains and stations this week are members of a Transportation Security Administration team, according to BART and Department of Homeland Security officials.
Photos posted to social media, including a tweet by Janice Li, a San Francisco resident running for the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors, show a line of at least eight armed, uniformed DHS officials walking in the aisle among seated passengers on a train bound for the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco. Roughly five DHS officials were seen standing in the Powell Street BART station on Market Street on Tuesday morning.
Each official was outfitted in a black bulletproof vest emblazoned with the word “POLICE” and had a firearm, radio and flashlight holstered in a black utility belt.
“As a regular transit rider, their presence doesn’t make me feel safe and it makes you think that something out of the ordinary is happening,” Li said.
Li described the train as being “eerily quiet” when the armed officials walked through the train.
“It was scary because I’m an immigrant and it’s not a normal sight to see an entire squad of armed officers on BART,” Li said.
Alicia Trost, the chief public information officer of BART, told The Chronicle that the DHS officials were from the Transportation Security Administration, and not members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — a fear that some riders have communicated on social media and to transportation officials.
Trost said the DHS officials are part of the Transportation Security Administration’s so-called VIPR team, which stands for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response.
“The idea is that they help patrol transit systems and airports, and this is a transit arm,” Trost said. “This is nothing new.”
Trost said the VIPR teams patrolling BART trains and stations are not part of the Homeland Security Investigations team, which investigates “cross-border criminal activity,” including immigrantion fraud, transnational gang activity and human rights violations, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website. There is a field office for the Homeland Security Investigations team, which is under the umbrella of ICE, located in San Francisco.
BART officials could not immediately confirm how long the transportation agency has partnered with the Department of Homeland Security.
Hi Olivia, they are our TSA VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) team. They serve as our patrol units for BART and other transit systems across the United States. They are like our eyes and ears to any emergencies. Also to note, VIPR is not ICE.
— SFBART (@SFBART) September 25, 2018
Thomas Kelly, an assistant supervisory air marshal in charge of public affairs for the TSA, confirmed in an email that the response team deployed alongside BART police officers Tuesday morning as part of regular transportation operations.
“Working in partnership with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, TSA deployed a Visible Intermodal Prevention & Response (VIPR) team to augment law enforcement and screening capabilities to mitigate terrorist risk to the traveling public,” Kelly said in an email statement. “In addition to the capabilities that the TSA personnel bring to these operations, BART law enforcement officers also deploy their own capabilities.”
Kelly said the TSA team regularly participates in transportation operations such as these throughout the country in “partnership with law enforcement and security authorities in all modes of transportation” including rail, air and maritime.
Though Department of Homeland Security officials did not state why the team was deployed on BART trains and stations Tuesday morning, a TSA pamphlet states TSA’s “security partners” may request random, “unpredictable” operations in an effort to deter terrorism.
On a train that was approaching Civic Center BART. About 8 armed officers including DHS. pic.twitter.com/pksXPZn51G
— Janice Li (@JaniceForBART) September 25, 2018
TSA informational pamphlets also say that these teams can be deployed in transportation systems that are at high risk of potential terrorist threats or during events where the number of travelers increases.