It turns out that the TSA’s much touted “behavior detection” program that was supposed to be a sophisticated, new age way of picking out potential terrorists has degenerated into just another law enforcement method of using racial profiling to pick out blacks and Latinos who look “suspicious,” according to a high number of complaints from TSA employees that were acquired by the New York Times.
At a meeting last month in Boston, officers from the Transportation Security Administration received 32 complaints—some anonymously—from employees in Boston who were upset about the procedures used in the program. They said the so-called behavior detection has resulted in particular passengers, such as Hispanics traveling to Miami or blacks wearing baseball caps backward, being much more likely to be stopped, searched and questioned.
“They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look — if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic,” said a white officer, who along with four others spoke with The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.
The TSA told the Times that it has opened an investigation into the employees’ claims.
The behavior program was celebrated in front page profiles in papers like the New York Times because it was supposed to be using “science” to determine whether certain travelers looked and acted uncomfortable or nervous, perhaps because they were in the midst of a carrying out a terrorist attack. But scientists have questioned whether any kind of behavioral psychology could be used for such purposes.
The complaints put the Obama administration in an awkward position since it has so vociferously opposed racial profiling in other instances, such as the new immigration law in Arizona. Now its own TSA is being accused of picking out travelers based on their race in a program that was supposed to be a national model.
In fact, according to the Times, the Massachusetts State Police actually asked the TSA why so many of the cases referred to them were minorities.
“The behavior detection program is no longer a behavior-based program, but it is a racial profiling program,” one officer wrote in an anonymous complaint obtained by The Times.
In a statement, a TSA spokesman said the agency just learned of the claims. “If any of these claims prove accurate, we will take immediate and decisive action to ensure there are consequences to such activity,” the statement said.
While the statement said the agency’s behavior detection program “in no way encourages or tolerates profiling,” the complaints from the TSA employees indicates that they were pressured to stop minorities to pad their numbers and demonstrate to Washington that the behavior program was working.
Instead, the employees said it had the opposite effect because it “takes officers away from the real threat, and we could miss a terrorist we are looking for.”
It was so bad that Boston officers actually went to the American Civil Liberties Union with their complaints of profiling.
“Selecting people based on race or ethnicity was a way of finding easy marks,” said Sarah Wunsch, a lawyer in the group’s Boston office who interviewed eight officers. “It was a notch in your belt.”