After National Police Week, clearer heads must prevail in legislation slashing Amtrak security

Tens of thousands of law enforcement officers from around the world converged on Washington, D.C., last week to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation designating May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day and the week in which that date falls as Police Week.

Amtrak’s Police Department (APD) was part of this contingent, with more than 450 sworn and civilian personnel responsible for covering more than 30 locations in 46 states to ensure passenger safety and infrastructure security.

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It’s been a harrowing month for Amtrak police. On May 1, the Fraternal Order of Police Labor Committee representing Amtrak police officers learned that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson plans to cut the police department by 20 percent over the next three years. Rather than focusing on this week’s ceremonies, Amtrak police continued making rounds to congressional offices to highlight the pitfalls of such a proposal, which would endanger employees and passengers alike.

More surprising than the justifiable condemnation of this slash-and-burn proposal is how bipartisan the objections have been. Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoRepublicans should get behind the 28th Amendment Student loan borrowers are defaulting yearly — how can we fix it? Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker MORE (R-N.Y.) is on record stating, “The vulnerabilities attached to train travel are well-documented. And this is not a time to reduce the forces. It’s time to increase the forces.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has also expressed concern: “I think Amtrak has a pretty heavy burden to justify this kind of drastic cut.” Indeed.

Responding to the criticism, Amtrak confirms that it’s reevaluating staffing levels and anticipates “adjusting” the size of the force, but says the public shouldn’t be concerned because it’ll attempt to “increase the presence of officers onboard trains.” What is important here is what is not being said.

Again, under Amtrak’s proposal to cut the overall force by 20 percent, it will be forced to reproportion the number of officers it has not only on trains, but also in stations and the tracks themselves. All three of these areas are of critical importance. Under the new staffing numbers, Amtrak can maintain the existing officer presence onboard trains, but only with trade-offs. This smoke-and-mirrors maneuvering will increase response times to incidents on the railroad right-of-way and decrease the visible deterrent in major stations, a proven method to fight crime and terrorism. 

The latter point is particularly relevant considering a recent al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine cover story about train derailment maneuvers. The article included a recipe for a train derailment tool, and a map of passenger and freight rail lines belonging to Amtrak, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, and CSX. Inspire magazine has also published articles detailing how terror threats have evolved in 15 years since the Madrid train bombings, with a focus on high-speed trains and railroad derailments, as part of wider coverage focused on “exposing America’s security vulnerabilities.”

We fully understand that we must be stewards of taxpayer dollars, and there’s no such thing as a blank check for any part of our operations, including security. But when Amtrak’s leaders stand to benefit through performance bonuses tied to budget benchmarks, forgive us for thinking that this ode to fiscal responsibility sounds contrived.

Amtrak ridership and revenues are at record levels. At the same time, threats to our homeland are increasing in both complexity and frequency. Is Amtrak willing to look the American public in the eye and say that it’s comfortable risking the safety and security of Amtrak passengers to meet an arbitrary budget number? For the sake of our officers’ lives, including those we honored in D.C. last week, and for the public we’ve sworn to protect, let’s hope clearer heads prevail. 

William Gonzalez is President of Amtrak’s Fraternal Order of Police Labor Committee.