If You’re Gonna Touch My Junk, At Least Grab the Data

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

This is a question I heard many times during my law enforcement career. Often my answer was no. But occasionally it would be “yes,” followed by an admonition to have a good day.

For the last half of my career, I would have documented each interaction, whether or not it involved an arrest. I would have written down the nature and length of the interaction, the gender, race, and age of the person, and the outcome of the contact (arrest, citation, etc.).

I carry the baggage of this history with me as I’ve traveled over the last eight years, mindlessly placing my luggage on the conveyer belt and removing my shoes for TSA inspection.

Recently, something changed.

Diedre Walker, a retired assistant chief of police, sounds as if she was a pretty good cop, and she writes well here, at Homeland Security Watch, of her growing dismay with the Transportation Safety Administration’s practices. What grabs me most is her point about the TSA’s apparent failure to collect any data about the patterns of their ‘random’ searches: Why do they choose the people they choose for the more thorough searches? What, in other words, is their version of “random”? And do they keep track of what they find when they do wand versus body versus scanner searches, or how well personnel at different locales or in different crews follow procedures? Do they compare and contrast? Do they even know whether their “random” searches are truly random?

Walker thinks not.

Within the last few months, I have been singled out for “additional screening” roughly half the time I step into an airport security line. On Friday, October 9, as I stepped out of the full-body scanning device at BWI, I decided I needed more information to identify why it is that I have become such an appealing candidate for secondary screening.

Little did I know this would be only the first of many questions I now have regarding my airport experiences.

This alone perked me up. I’m 6’4″, weigh 195 pounds, and am fairly fit, so you’d think I’d be one of the last people you’d want to get on a plane with a weapon and bad intentions. Yet in scores of flights since 9/11, I’ve been asked to step aside only once — and that was before the recent revisions toward more thorough screening, and the pat-down was so ludicrously polite that it would have revealed only something in a shoulder holster or a pocket. True, the searches are supposed to be random, so I shouldn’t be getting singled out just because I’m big. But Walker suggests the TSA is actually more likely to search her than me — precisely because she seems less threatening:

As I watched the screening officers, I wondered what information drives their decisions. Left only to my observations, I concluded that their decisions were entirely random, and likely based upon three criteria: passenger load, staffing, and whim.

I was left to conclude that I am not screened because I look like a terrorist. I am routinely screened because I look like someone who will readily comply. I decided then that my next invitation to enjoy additional screening would be met with more inquiry.

I did not have wait very long. On my return through Albany to BWI — Surprise! – I got “randomly selected” for additional screening.

If Walker is right — TSA personnel are unconsciously and understandably inclined to single out less threatening or more apparently compliant people to put through the fine filter — then they may actually be practicing a sort of reverse profiling that misses the very people who pose the greatest threats.

More seriously, if Walker is right that the TSA is not recording stats on its searches — and I’ve seen nothing in the typical search-line chaos and lassitude that suggests they are collecting data — then we have an even bigger problem: The TSA is taking a lot of effort and spending a ton of money and causing a lot of disruption and creating the trappings, psychology, and a main apparatus (search at will) of a police state — and we no way of knowing a) how consistent they are being or b) what sorts of searches, procedures, or practices are most effective.

This bears a disturbing resemblance to the US’s failure to track the effectiveness of its medical and educational practices. We throw tons of money at these problems — but because we don’t keep track of what works and what doesn’t, or even what everyone is doing, we have no idea what works.

This is too bad, because as every frequent flyer knows, the procedures and skill of the screeners varies widely, and many seem, well, not from the A-team. So Walker found when she refused a “puffer machine” meant to detect explosives so was subjected to a body search. What followed sounds like a checkpoint being run by uncertain high-schoolers:

I shrugged and waited while the screeners figured out what to do next. One of the screeners said “Who is the supervisor? Notify a supervisor.” I waited two to three minutes with two female screeners. I was then approached by a uniformed screener and the following exchange took place.

“She refused the puffer. We are supposed to notify a supervisor. You’re a supervisor, right?”

Apparently reminded of his role, the subordinate screener then said “We’re notifying you.” She said nothing further.   The supervisor then informed me that if I did not step into the “puffer” I would be subjected to a full body-pat-down, that I would be “wanded” and that all of my belongings would be fully searched by hand.

By this time, my belongings had already passed through the x-ray and sat oddly unattended on the belt. They had aroused no suspicion, either as they passed through the x-ray or as they sat completely unattended. I thought it odd that my initial refusal to be subjected to the ‘puffer’ now rendered the x-ray examination effectively flawed. I was being cajoled and was then offered the opportunity to change my mind, which, again, I thought rather odd. If I posed such a risk by refusing the secondary screening, why would that risk be now mitigated, if only I were to change my mind?

I did not change my mind. So, I stepped between two glass walls and was subjected to what my police training would allow me to conclude was a procedural vacuum.

I had been told repeatedly I would be subjected to a “pat-down.” I correctly suspected otherwise. During the course of my police career, I have conducted many pat-downs on the street. The Supreme Court has described pat downs as a cursory check of the outer clothing of a person by a police officer, upon articulable suspicion that the officer’s safety is at risk of being compromised. My department’s procedure indicated that this pat-down was to be conducted with an open hand, gently patting the outer clothing of an individual, for purposes of officer safety only, with the goal of detecting weapons. In other words, it is not a search.

What happened to me in Albany was not the promised “pat-down.” It was a full search conducted in full public view. It was also one of the most flawed searches I have ever witnessed.

From the outset, it was very clear that the screener would have preferred to be anywhere else. She acted as if she was afraid of me, though given that I had set myself apart as apparently crazy, perhaps I cannot blame her. With rubber-gloved hands she checked my head, my arms, my legs, my buttocks (and discovered a pen that had fallen into one of my pockets) and even the bottom of my feet. Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.

Here was a big problem: an effective search cannot nod to decorum.

These three areas on a woman, and the crotch area of men, offer the greatest opportunity to seclude weapons and contraband.   Bad guys and girls rely on the type of reluctance displayed by this screener to get weapons and drugs past the authorities. We train cops to realize that their life depends upon the ability to compartmentalize any apprehension about the need to lift and separate. Fatal consequences can and do result when officers fail to detect a secreted weapon which is later used against them.

At the Albany airport, I was left to wonder what kind of training the screener received. I was forced to conclude the answer might be “none.”

My experience has been similar; the screeners vary widely in competence (and courtesy). Some units seem focused and consistent; most are not. My electronics-dense bag draws extra scrutiny (an open-bag check) at one unit and hardly a glance at the next. Some places wand me if I set off the metal detector just once (that damned belt buckle), others let me walk through two or three times, removing belt, watch, and forgotten headset in sequence. And no one ever asks to open my rollerbag to see what’s in those liquids that I now always leave in the bag; I NEVER remove my Dopp kit with my toothpaste, roll-on, contact lens cleaner, and shaving gel because I forgot it once, nothing happened, so I started just leaving it in. And though they make a big deal of asking us to take it out, they never notice that I leave it in.

Meanwhile, of course, the agents who should be trying to do good security seem to increasingly feel compelled to screen people punitively.

You can’t readily correct such lapses, inconsistencies, or abuses if you don’t track what your own people are doing. Neither can you spot bigger inconsistencies that suggest discrimination or abuse.

Currently, there is no way to know whether a certain male screener routinely identifies predominantly women for additional screening. There is no way to identify whether a Latino screener routinely isolates African-Americans, or vice versa. To assert that the screeners are highly trained and do not engaged in this type of discrimination, whether passive or active, is unsupportable because there is no data. You simply cannot solve problems that you do not want to identify.

This is only one of a mess of problems with the TSA, of course. Yet it’s stunning that an effort that claims to be going to great lengths to ensure our security doesn’t take the basic step — a hassle, yes, but basic in the sense of Things You Must Do To Get It Right — of charting its own performance.

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