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Amtrak arrests are secret

So, it turns out Amtrak typically won't reveal the names of people its police force arrests.

I know that's hard to imagine, to think that the arrests by a federally financed law enforcement agency are secret.

But it seems to be true.

I discovered this in the course of trying to report on the arrest of someone who was apparently caught last year on Amtrak property in Stonington, painting a large waterfront boulder pink.

I was looking for the painter's name to find him, and no one from the railroad would tell me whom they arrested. So I filed a formal freedom of information request, asking for all Amtrak arrests in Connecticut in 2009.

That was back in March.

This week, more than seven months later, I got a letter back from Sharron H. Hawkins, Amtrak's freedom of information officer, who explained at length why all the names of those arrested, dates and the names of arresting officers were scrubbed from a three-page list of 2009 Connecticut Amtrak arrests.

"The disclosure of names appearing in the above-mentioned records could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy of those individuals," Hawkins wrote in her Nov. 9 letter to me, explaining why the names were blacked out.


Amtrak won't reveal the names of the people it arrests because it could be an invasion of their privacy?

I wish they were as routinely considerate of those of us left waiting on their platforms for inexplicably late trains.

And what if accused lawbreakers are detained as a result of their Amtrak arrests? Couldn't there then be disappearances on Amtrak property, where people are hauled off and incarcerated and no one even knows where they've gone?

Can anyone think of another single law enforcement agency anywhere in this country that would arrest someone in secret?

I was so flabbergasted by the letter from Hawkins that I called Amtrak's public relations office to ask if Amtrak really means to keep its arrests secret.

Apparently, it came as a surprise to them, too.

No one offered to comment on Hawkins' decision to expunge all the names from the arrest records I was sent.

But Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole did suggest in an e-mail Thursday afternoon that I could e-mail a prompt appeal to Hawkins of her decision to redact the names from the logs. He suggested the appeal might go my way, quickly.

What I understand from all of this is that, for the most part, whether you call up and ask by phone, as I did in March, or whether you file a formal freedom of information request, Amtrak won't tell you who they've arrested.

If you tell them, though, that you plan to write about their policy of not revealing the names of people arrested, they might indeed cough some up.

While the decision to not reveal the names was a puzzle, the decision to also redact the dates was especially strange.

"Since the arrests of the above-mentioned individuals have occurred primarily on Amtrak property, a person could easily use the date of the arrest to determine the individual's identity," Hawkins chided in her letter to me.

I can't think of many ways in which she might have twisted herself into a tighter and more indecipherable legal pretzel to protect the names of people accused of committing crimes on federal property.

The good news, from the little information left on the arrest log pages for Connecticut, is that none of the crimes - there were less than 200 in all - seem very serious. The bulk of the arrests are for trespass and vandalism.

Maybe Amtrak police would be a good place to start cutting the federal budget.

After all, why can't Amtrak just call the local police, like the rest of us.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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