Schiphol Airport spotters, Amsterdam, photo by Asia-Pacific Aerospace Report
Schiphol Airport spotters, Amsterdam

Among the dumber mindsets in matters concerning security at airports there has been a crack down on photography in general and plane spotters in particular.

The situation is not as bad in Australia as in Little Britain, India, the EU, and the US, but there have been anecdotal reports on sites dedicated to aircraft spotting and air transport photography concerning people, even family or tour groups posing for pictures in terminals, being harassed or threatened with arrest for taking photos or videos.

Which is why, being a rail fan–which is the mature aged version of a train spotter– I thought this column by long time air and rail transport reporter Don Phillips (an American who worked for many years in Paris) is so relevant to the role plane spotters can play in enhancing security.

The key references for Australia comes in the final section concerning the rights of people to take photos in public places, as well as their utility in detecting security breaches.

Trains Magazine column

By Don Phillips

Amtrak off to a good start
talking with rail supporters

The Amtrak/Trains Magazine meeting in Chicago on March
6 was a surprisingly good session for the nearly 300 rail supporters
and enthusiasts who met in a riverf ront hotel. Yes, I was disappointed
in a few statements by Amtrak President Joe Boardman and his
lieutenants, two of which I discuss below. But there was much that
was positive about the meeting, and I want to emphasize that first.

Perhaps the best news of all was that Amtrak’s top management
was there, made itself available, and provided some straight talk and
some useful information. For more than a year, Boardman held almost
no news conferences, but just recently, before the March “town
hall” meeting, he gave two speeches in which he took relatively
tough questions and answered them.

Then, at the town hall meeting, he took numerous questions and
answered most of them satisfactorily. That is a new situation that all
of us should applaud and encourage. March 6 was a great coming out
celebration, and there are already indications that Boardman is
keeping up the pace. Personally, I look forward to it.

But for now, I want to focus on two issues that need further resolution.
The first was a statement from Boardman saying that Amtrak
will scrap the passenger cars it retires in years to come. He was quite
forthcoming in explaining that this would be done to avoid having
the cars fall into the hands of possible competing passenger operators.

I hate to say it, Mr. Boardman, but these are not your cars. They
were partly paid for by us, the taxpayers. If a few pennies of my taxes
could be returned with a sale to someplace other than a scrap yard,
then sell them. I, and millions of fellow taxpayers, have a say in this.

I see one other serious issue, and this one is quite serious: Amtrak’s
insistence on continuing its policy that railfans cannot take
pictures on open-air Amtrak station platforms. This accomplishes
nothing and actually takes one small step in removing some of our
freedoms. A platform is public unless it is blocked off to everyone,
or there is a compelling reason (perhaps a chemical spill) to evacuate
the area, or some passerby does something stupid like walk in
the middle of the tracks.

No one has yet explained why this rule was imposed. Even at the
conference, the “why” issue was danced around. We know lots of
so-called reasons, but we still don’t know the real reason why Amtrak
considers this strange rule so important that it would risk losing
lots of friends and step on our Constitutional rights. Many railroads
welcome rail photographers on their platforms, including
New Jersey Transit. I mention NJ Transit because it owns Newark
station. Therefore, we can go on the Newark platforms and take all
the photos we want of Amtrak trains. (Amtrak owns only one-third
of the stations it uses. How confusing for photographers.)

At the conference, Amtrak chose its wonderful police chief John
O’Connor to break the bad news to us. O’Connor is a pure civil
libertarian and perhaps the best cop I’ve ever known. He cast the
rule as something that Amtrak never claimed till now — a way to let
Amtrak know we are there so local citizens and police can be informed
that we’re legitimate, unthreatening photographers if someone
asks. Sorry, Chief, good try and I know you mean it, and you
may successfully transform this rule into something positive. But
for now, we’re still technically banned from places that have been
open to us for more than a century.

But why listen to me? Let me turn to a note from another veteran
police officer, part of which I repeat below by permission. I will close
with this note because I can’t improve on it. The note comes from
John DeLora, who just retired after 30 years as a police officer with
a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. For his last eight years, De-
Lora was the Homeland Security Liaison for Detroit Public School
District Police, and was the planning and training officer for 60 fully
sworn police officers and more than 350 unsworn security officers.

“When any kind of criminal incident happens, police need as
much information as possible. As an investigator, I want to know
what cars were parked where, who was in the area, and what was left
where and when. When an incident occurred near one of our buildings,
we’d ask students if anyone got photos on their cell phones. It
is rare that we got a shot of the perpetrator in action, but we did get
photos of people in the area who are potential witnesses, and we
also got photos of cars that were in the area, giving us valuable
sources for further leads.

“Amtrak’s photo policy eliminates these potential investigatory
leads. The idea that these rules will discourage terrorist activity is
pure naiveté. Any potential terrorist can get all the photo information
needed from Google satellite photos or by simply pretending to
take a picture of someone.

“Amtrak should be encouraging as much photography as possible.
Railfans should be encouraged to take photos not just of trains
and stations, but of undesirables who hang around some big-city
stations. This includes panhandlers asking for spare change plus
crackheads, winos, and junkies in the area. Seeing that people are
taking photos will discourage them from hanging around, and can
provide valuable leads to police when break-ins of cars parked in
the station parking lot occur.

“Finally, the photo policy may be Amtrak’s policy, but it is far from
being law. Photography is legal in any public place. Public places include
station parking lots, waiting rooms, concourses, and platforms
without gates restricting access. Amtrak’s photo policy was likely developed
by a corporate law attorney, and in my opinion, probably one
who has never prosecuted a criminal case in a courtroom.”

DON PHILLIPS, a newspaper reporter for more than four decades,
writes this exclusive monthly column for Trains.

The advice given to me is that this is just as true in Australia. While there are laws that can be used to prosecute those who stalk, impede or threaten other people, or trespass, there is no legal basis for preventing any member of the public, including tourists, from taking photos or videos in general in public places, or at public events (although there are some serious copyright issues in relation to the performing arts).

The spotter community is close enough to know what and whom is usual, or unusual or suspicious. While subject to the same rules that apply to everyone concerning anti-social behaviour or creating a public nuisance, a co-operative relationship between plane spotters and the authorities and the airports is highly desirable.

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