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VIPR Team Deployed in Charlotte, Muddling Up CATS Policing Further

Three law enforcement agencies policing one place

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VIPR team, Ethan Rivera
The murder of Ethan Rivera on North Graham Street in February spurred calls for more safety measures for CATS employees. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

On March 3, nearly three weeks after the murder of Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) bus operator Ethan Rivera led to calls for enhanced safety measures on public transit, the official CATS Twitter account tweeted out three grainy surveillance photos showing federal agents patrolling the Uptown transit center. 

“As CATS continues to support and provide additional security resources, we have been able to partner with the Department of Homeland Security’s local Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team,” the tweet read. “The local VIPR team may be present on CATS property at any place and time.”

This was news to at least one member of the Transit Services Advisory Committee (TSAC), which advises CATS. She hadn’t heard of any such partnership, but the idea of federal agents roaming CATS property brought up a few questions she would’ve liked to see answered before they were deployed. 

“What’s the message that sends?” she asked Queen City Nerve during a recent phone call. “What are they empowered to do? What are they not empowered to do? How long will they be here? Are they armed? How are they armed? What are the rules of engagement here?” 

Those are just a few of the questions that came to mind for the TSAC member, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions within the committee. 

She also worried how the presence of VIPR agents may lead to over-policing at the transit stations, bringing up concerns about racial profiling, the criminalization of homelessness, immigration enforcement, and other issues. 

“I know the drivers are concerned for their safety and I know passengers have been concerned for their safety,” she told Queen City Nerve. “I think the issue really is, when you bring in federal law enforcement, might that have a chilling effect on ridership? … We need some transparency.”

Others in the community have similar concerns, not only with the VIPR team deployment but with a muddled policing picture that sees three different law enforcement agencies policing certain CATS properties independently from one another. 

What is a VIPR team

VIPR teams were formed under the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as a response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. 

“Following the Madrid train bombing, TSA developed the VIPR Program to allow TSA law enforcement and security assets to augment federal, state, and local law enforcement and security agencies in the transportation domain,” a TSA spokesperson wrote to Queen City Nerve.

The teams operate in mass transit, rail, air and maritime transportation spaces. 

VIPR team
Surveillance footage that CATS tweeted a VIPR team patrolling the transit center property in Uptown. (Photo courtesy of @CATSRideTransit)

For years VIPR seemingly bumbled along, making headlines for incidents that caused tension with local law enforcement agencies. 

“VIPR began life as a modern version of the Keystone Kops,” wrote Trains Magazine reporter Don Phillips in a 2012 op-ed for CNN, referring to the fictional gang of incompetent policemen featured in silent film slapstick comedies in the 1910s.

In 2011, Amtrak police chief John O’Connor banned VIPR from all Amtrak facilities after a team inexplicably took over a station in Savannah, Georgia, and searched everyone coming in and out of the facility. No security issue to justify the action was ever presented. 

TSA issued an apology for the incident, though O’Connor would not accept it, stating that the agency continued to put forward inaccuracies in its own version of events.  

 

Private railroads have repeatedly refused TSA’s requests for VIPR teams to be given access to their properties, stating that it is too dangerous for agents who aren’t trained to operate in railyards. 

Though VIPR has mostly stayed out of headlines in more recent years, they do make for an imposing presence that raises questions in cities where they appear. In 2019 alone, we found stories from Portland, Maine; Dallas, Texas; and San Francisco that reported how citizens had become alarmed when federal agents began showing up on public transportation.  

Civil rights groups have voiced concerns that VIPR teams are the TSA’s way of expanding its power to carry out searches and seizures that would otherwise be unlawful. 

“This is a classic case of the slippery slope,” wrote Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011. “The Fourth Amendment says that the government cannot carry out a search without probable cause. Over the years, the courts have carved an exception to that plain language for airports, where the government can carry out a limited ‘administrative’ search solely for the purpose of protecting the safety of air travel (it cannot be a general law enforcement stop).

“…But the TSA is trying to expand and manipulate that exception for law enforcement purposes – and drive a permanent hole in the Fourth Amendment,” he continued. 

VIPR in Charlotte

On Feb. 11, the community was shocked when CATS bus operator Ethan Rivera was shot and killed during an apparent road rage incident near the intersection of North Graham and West Trade streets. 

The suspect, later identified as 21-year-old Darian Dru Thavychith, allegedly shot Rivera multiple times through his driver-side window without ever leaving his car. Police arrested Thavychith on March 1 and charged him with murder and shooting into occupied property.

Rivera’s killing sparked outrage among CATS employees, who in the weeks following the shooting held rallies at the scene of the incident and outside of Charlotte City Council meetings. They spoke at public forums, calling for CATS CEO John Lewis’ resignation and more comprehensive safety measures for drivers.

Ethan Rivera, CATS
A CATS employee wears a hoodie paying tribute to Ethan Rivera during a protest at a city council meeting on Feb. 28. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

At a meeting on Feb. 28, CATS bus operator Gia Lockhart told Mayor Vi Lyles and Charlotte City Council members that she and other colleagues had also been assaulted while on the job and no longer felt safe. 

“Mayor, I love my city and I love my job, but you are allowing this man right here to bring it down,” she said, pointing to Lewis, who was sitting nearby. 

Three days previously on Feb. 25, Lewis had put out a press release addressing “rampant speculation regarding the safety of CATS bus operators and our transit system,” stating that CATS had done an audit of its bus fleet and replaced 11 defective radios and would be working with the SMART labor union to create more solutions.

Inquiries to SMART labor reps for this story went unanswered. 

VIPR team, CATS
The CATS transit center in Uptown. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

On March 3, @CATSRideTransit tweeted out the surveillance photos of VIPR teams deployed at the Uptown transit center. 

In an email response to inquiries from Queen City Nerve, a spokesperson with the CATS Office of Safety and Security (OSS) stated that CATS has been working with DHS “for several years through this program,” though they did not specify how many years. 

But in a tweet on March 15, CATS implied that the VIPR team deployment was a response to Ethan Rivera’s murder. 

Responding to a Twitter user who asked what CATS had done since Rivera’s killing to ensure better safety for its drivers, CATS responded: “Since the incident regarding bus operator Ethan Rivera, CMPD has added patrols of the Charlotte Transit Center and bus routes. Department of Homeland Security Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams will now be making random visits and patrol CATS facilities.” 

VIPR team
An officer runs a check on a bus at the transit center on a recent afternoon. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Follow-up tweets stated that CATS was also adding additional Allied Universal resources for all bus facilities and routes while working with CMPD to identify and implement de-escalation training for bus operators and CATS frontline employees.

In an email to Queen City Nerve, the CATS OSS Spokesperson wrote, “In addition to working with our partners, the CMPD Transit Police Officers assigned to CATS are making checks of bus drivers and walking through buses at various locations throughout the city. Allied Universal guards working at all our parking decks have been instructed to conduct driver and bus checks when they see a bus during their patrol of the decks.”

They would not specify the specific roles that their VIPR partners with the DHS were assigned to carry out. 

Three agencies police the transit center

Bus operators have called for increased security at transit stations and on public transit vehicles in the wake of Ethan Rivera’s murder, but it gets foggy as to who’s in charge of that. For example, there are three separate agencies in charge of enforcing the law at the Transit Center. 

CATS hires out the private security firm Allied Universal to provide armed security at its facilities and on trains and buses, while CMPD also patrols the station and now federal agents with TSA’s VIPR teams will have a presence. 

For Robert Dawkins, political director with Action NC, the crowded nature of policing at the transit center is problematic at a time when his organization and others have been working with the city on a Reimagining Policing initiative that includes 8 Can’t Wait reforms and other changes in how CMPD operates. 

He points out that bringing in outside agencies, be they federal or private, can muddle up those efforts. 

“Our main thing of course is safety – that’s whether we’re talking about police accountability, neighborhood safety or any infrastructure that the city provides,” Dawkins said. “We already had a problem that the Transit Center is outsourced to private security. As hard as we and other groups work to make sure that public safety, specifically as it’s run by CMPD, is fair – we’re starting things like the Safe Communities group to make sure that the public is safe – and private security does not have to live up to the vision of safety that we push for or city council is pushing for. So we’ve always had a problem with private security.”

A CMPD spokesperson confirmed to Queen City Nerve that neither Allied Universal guards nor DHS agents operate under CMPD directives, though both organizations are required to operate within federal and North Carolina law.  

Dawkins said the deployment of VIPR teams brings up new issues, as the Department of Homeland Security also oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), raising concerns about whether agents will have the power to enforce immigration laws at the station. 

“In Charlotte, city council has always used the cover of, ‘We don’t enforce immigration laws, that’s not us, we’re not having anything to do with that,’” Dawkins said. “So who decided to let transit go out and work a deal to have DHS do security out there when now the city’s going to be tied into whatever they do to enforce immigration policy?” 

When asked what authority VIPR has at facilities like the transit center, whether they are tasked with reacting to crimes as they occur or will carry out proactive measures such as searches of suspicious persons, a CATS OSS spokesperson responded over email, “Local law enforcement is present to enforce the laws and address any criminal behavior observed.”

When asked about what rules of engagement or other directives VIPR will work under in Charlotte, the spokesperson responded, “Local law enforcement will enforce the laws and address observed criminal behavior.” 

When asked whether VIPR will enforce immigration laws at CATS facilities, the spokesperson responded, “Local law enforcement are present with the team and they will enforce laws and address any observed criminal behavior.” 

VIPR team, ICE, Robert Dawkins
Robert Dawkins at a protest against ICE presence in Charlotte in 2019. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Dawkins said he has been assured by city officials that VIPR will not enforce immigration laws, as they operate under the TSA and not ICE. However, he and his team, which has a presence at the transit center doing community outreach around issues like vaccines and voter registration, will keep a close eye on it. 

“The same way that we went after the sheriff’s department for 287(g) [a partnership between the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office and ICE that was terminated in 2019] – we don’t want to … but we would be prepared to wage a campaign against [CATS] in the city over that if we see that it leads to discrimination against specifically the Latinx community, or if our people that we have down there say that they’re doing citizenship checks,” Dawkins said. “That’s going to be a major issue for us that we will have to address legally.” 

Searching for solutions

Even with three law enforcement agencies holding jurisdiction over CATS facilities such as the transit center, CATS employees continue to say they do not feel safe on the job. 

Queen City Nerve spoke with bus operator Gia Lockhart over the phone in March, a couple of weeks after her speech at the Feb. 28 Charlotte City Council meeting. She said that over her eight-year tenure with CATS, she’s noticed a deterioration. 

“The morale on the job has gone down,” she said. “The delinquency and the loitering, the prostitution, the drugs, everything as far as crime-related has gotten worse at the transit center and on the buses for the drivers and the passengers.” 

CATS, safety
Gia Lockhart addresses Charlotte City Council at a meeting on Feb. 28. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Lockhart said she hadn’t seen any DHS agents at the transit center, only Allied Security, but even with them keeping a relatively strong presence at the transit center, she feels unsafe at other stations, including the light rail stations where she has bus stops but has never seen any law enforcement. 

Lockhart said fixing the broken bus radios was a step in the right direction, but she hopes the city can work more money into the upcoming Fiscal Year 2023 budget to fund more comprehensive safety measures. 

She supports city council member Tariq Bokhari’s pitch to install bulletproof barriers in each bus between the driver and the riders, though if that measure is explored further by council, she said she would want it to be expanded to include bulletproof windshields and driver-side windows. 

VIPR team
Police at the transit center in Uptown. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Lockhart would also like to see a fixed presence for CMPD or MCSO that includes an office in the transit center, and she wants to bring CATS employees’ efforts statewide, lobbying state legislators to pass a law making it a hate crime to attack transit drivers. 

Provisions added into President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law, signed in November, were meant to protect transit workers, but transit unions have recently complained that the Federal Transit Administration is yet to implement or enforce the protections

Lockhart remains optimistic that, with it being an election year, local officials will be more apt to listen to the demands of her and her colleagues. 

“At the end of the day, we are literally right there on the front lines, just as well as police and fire and Medic,” Lockhart said. “We might have a different job description but we’re right there with the people, and we just don’t get the respect that we feel like we deserve, nor the pay.”


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