Report: TSA screening is a magnet for racial profiling

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When the TSA stops someone at the airport, there must be a good reason, right?  Maybe not.  It could be racial profiling at work.

A new report from the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security says an airport screening program administered by the Transportation Security Administration is not effectively or objectively screening passengers.

The TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, also known as SPOT or “behavioral detection program”—which costs the taxpayers nearly $1 billion—is designed to screen passengers and identify high-risk travelers based on their behavior.  Under the program, which is based on the model used by Israeli security forces, airport security officers are supposed to look for behavior that indicates signs of stress, fear or deception.  But the inspector general’s report said it “cannot ensure that passengers at U.S. airports are screened objectively.”

Latinos and African-Americans targeted

Airport officers have claimed African-Americans wearing baseball caps backward and Latinos traveling to Florida are profiled.  And these passengers are profiled, sometimes arrested by officers at the insistence of their superiors, in the hopes of uncovering arrest warrants, immigration violations or drugs.

Under the SPOT program, 644 Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) are deployed in 42 airports.  Working in pairs, BDOs conduct brief conversations with passengers waiting in line and observe their actions.  Based on the observations, BDOs identify passengers for further screening, and possibly a referral to law enforcement.  A law enforcement officer (LEO) may interact with the traveler to determine if further steps are necessary.  Sometimes it could mean a passenger is not allowed to board the flight.

The report found that “TSA cannot demonstrate that BDOs are screening passengers in a uniform manner to identify potentially high-risk individuals.”  In addition, the TSA has not developed performance measures to determine the program’s effectiveness, does not collect accurate or complete data, and has not developed refresher training for BDOs.

Homeland Security makes six recommendations to the TSA, such as developing a strategic plan for SPOT, ensuring accurate data entry, providing continuing training to BDOs and instructors, and identifying issues that affect SPOT’s success.

The TSA, which screens 1.8 million passengers each day in over 450 TSA-regulated airports, falls under the Department of Homeland Security.  It is illegal to target travelers based on race, nationality, ethnicity or religion.  But apparently, this racial profiling is happening every day.

Racial profiling as a way of life

News of the report comes as the TSA recently pulled its “naked-image” body scanners, which critics have found humiliating and a health risk.  The agency has also come under fire in recent years for intrusive pat-downs and excessive body searches, including a lawsuit challenging the scanners and pat-downs.  And in April, Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, introduced a bill to reform the TSA’s contract screener program.  The legislation increases standards for hiring and training screeners and for handling security breaches and sensitive security information.

Many of us are no strangers to racial profiling at the airport, whether through firsthand experience or personal observation of the treatment of other passengers who “fit the description.”  Why are the black and brown folks always singled out for special treatment, that annoying, extra step that few others seem to get?  One at the airport, as I was about to board a plane for London, I recall the screeners harassing a South Asian family—women and children included— with a long, drawn out search process.  There was a sense the humiliating exercise had more to do with the race of the passengers than any suspicious activity or perceived threat.

For people of color, racial profiling takes place in the airport and in the streets under the guise of observing suspicious behavior.  Last week in Florida, a Miami Dade police officer chased a 14-year-old boy, threw him to the ground and put him in a chokehold for playing with a puppy while black.  According to police, the boy, Tremaine McMillian, exhibited “demunanizing stares” and clenched fists. The boy wet his pants as a result of the ordeal.

Moreover, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, typically for small amounts.  In Washington, DC, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, the arrest rate for blacks is 7.5 to 8.5 times higher.  In the “war on drugs,” not unlike the case of the TSA, billions of dollars are spent to boost some agency’s reputation as crime fighters.

So much wasted in time and resources, so little achieved, and so many people of color victimized over stereotypes.

Racial profiling creates losers in the criminal justice system, causing people to lose their freedom and even their lives.  In remarks made at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, federal Judge Edith Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said that “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime,” are “prone to commit acts of violence,” and more likely than people of other ethnicities to be involved in “heinous” acts.

Jones also said the death penalty allows prisoners to “make peace with God,” and dismissed as “red herrings” any arguments that the death penalty is discriminatory, is imposed arbitrarily and violates international law.  The judge’s statements are the subject of a lawsuit by the NAACP, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program.

In the meantime, criminalizing people for “flying while black or brown” does not make anyone safer.  It puts everyone at risk.  Plus, it wastes lots of money and only humiliates people in the process.  TSA should find the real threats to public safety in the skies, not those innocent people who are guilty of having darker skin or a certain ethnic or religious background.  Until then, SPOT should be grounded.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove