Citing fears about federal immigration crackdowns and misinformation, local community organizations Tuesday launched a new effort to alert Seattle transit riders about the types of law enforcement they may encounter on trains and buses.
A flyer released by the King County Sheriff’s Office watchdog, the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), outlines the role of various police and security officers seen on transit.
The education effort comes after several instances in recent years in which rumors spread about immigration enforcement on trains or buses. Transit agencies emphasized Tuesday that they do not know of instances of immigration agents patrolling their vehicles and stations.
“In any given week,” a hotline run by the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network “receives information that there’s immigration agents on the light rail or on public transportation,” said director Monserrat Padilla.
Each time, those reports have turned out to be another type of officer. “There’s always this fear that in these unprecedented times, anything can happen,” Padilla said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not board public transit to check immigration status, ICE said in a statement Tuesday. The agency denounced “misinformation and rumors” and said, “allegations that ICE is boarding commuter trains, buses, or any other public transit for the purpose of checking riders’ immigration status [are] completely false.”
Transit riders may have seen several other types of law enforcement or security on or around Sound Transit trains and King County Metro buses, though: transit police, who are part of the Sheriff’s Office; fare-enforcement officers, who check for valid fare on Sound Transit trains and some buses; transit security officers; and Federal Air Marshals who are part of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) teams and are sometimes mistaken for immigration enforcement.
The Federal Air Marshals work on anti-terrorism efforts as part of teams called Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, which ramped up after attacks in London and Madrid, Spain, according to TSA. The teams “have nothing to do” with immigration enforcement, said Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service.
OLEO outlined the role of each group and what their uniforms look like on the flyer, which is available in English, Spanish and Chinese. The flyers aren’t currently posted on any buses or trains, but will be handed out to riders during service changes and through community groups, according to OLEO.
TSA teams and Sheriff’s Office transit police, who patrol transit and stations and respond to requests from security officers, are armed. Fare-enforcement and security officers, who work for the private company Securitas, do not carry guns.
There are “greater conversations to be had” about the role of law enforcement on transit, said OLEO director Deborah Jacobs.
“We’re starting by telling you who’s there, what kind of clothes they’re wearing, what they’re there for, how you can complain about them if necessary and that kind of basic information to hopefully alleviate some of people’s fears,” Jacobs said.
The office tied the release of the flyer to the birthday of Rosa Parks and cited census data to note that people of color are more likely to use transit to get to work.
On Seattle transit, the TSA teams have created particular confusion because their uniforms only indicate they are from the Department of Homeland Security, said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
Given reports of coordination between law enforcement and ICE in other parts of the country, “there’s a general wariness of somebody in a uniform,” Barón said.
In the summer of 2018, a photo of a Sound Transit security officer showing an ICE logo on a card visible on his duffel bag drew attention on social media. At the time, Sound Transit representatives said they didn’t know why the officer had the ICE card and that he had left the job for personal reasons.
Last year, the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network received reports of ICE officers on Metro’s RapidRide E line, but learned the reports likely stemmed from someone seeing a fare-enforcement officer, Padilla said.
“Because of the real fear that this current time puts in our community, people were just really afraid,” Padilla said.
In Spokane, a false rumor spread in 2017 about ICE agents checking people’s IDs at a Greyhound station. Last year, a Portland comedian said immigration authorities forced him off a Greyhound bus in Spokane and questioned him. His account was broadly confirmed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Fear about immigration enforcement can cause people to skip work, school or doctor’s appointments, Padilla said. Padilla encouraged people to report potential activity to the network’s hotline, 844-724-3737, to be vetted before sharing rumors or sightings on social media.