Today’s (returning) guest author is Deirdre Walker. A few weeks ago she wrote a post about her experiences at one of the country’s airports. Last week she went to another airport. This post is about that experience.
Before she retired, Walker was the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police. She spent 24 years as a police officer. Among her professional accomplishments, Chief Walker helped lead a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional team of law enforcement officials in 2002 investigating what has since become known as the Washington D.C. sniper killings.
I frequently commute between Tampa and Baltimore. During my travels, I have many opportunities to observe and a lot of time to think.
Lately, I have been engaged in more active observation regarding what is happening in our nation’s airports. I have come to the troubling conclusion that we have some significant challenges with regard to airport security. These challenges are fundamental, large, and unwieldy.
I recently blogged about some of these challenges in an article entitled “Do I have the Right to Refuse this Search.” The article, posted October 15 on HLS Watch.com described first my growing awareness that I was becoming a frequent, if not routine, candidate for secondary searches, and then the follow-on from my line-in-the-sand decision to challenge that selection from then/now on.
In my article, I articulated my reasons for my concern (ultimate compromise of traveler faith and safety), endeavored to provide context for those concerns (the role of active and passive discrimination, the need for data collection, and haphazard and inconsistent responses by TSA personnel). I also attempted to establish myself as a credible, concerned participant in the dialogue (retired Assistant Chief of Police, 24 years experience, etc.).
That article was my first attempt at blogging and I was surprised by the response. Within less than a month, around one hundred thousand people had at least looked at the article. I am hopeful that many of those folks may have even read it, in spite of its unTwitter-friendly length. The article was reposted on at least ten other blogs, to include BoingBoing and TravelSpeak. On Tuesday, November 3d, it was posted on the blog link for The Economist.
The interest my article has generated is at once gratifying and deeply troubling. Clearly, based upon the number of readers, and the number and nature of comments posted in reply, there is broad concern (if not outright animosity) in the blogosphere regarding TSA, and the procedures it employs in both the selection and the searches of American travelers. I believe that concern is reflected among and generalizable to non-blogging American travelers.
Predictably, interest in my article is starting to wane. Unfortunately, whatever it is about me that has made me such an appealing target for secondary screening has not waned.
On Tuesday, November 3, I traveled from BWI airport en route to Tampa. I needed to get to my home in Florida so I could vote in a local election. Our Gulf Coast community, like many others, is debating charter questions on growth management and I wanted my voice to be heard. On November 3 as I passed through the security checkpoint, my voice was heard in a different way.
(Since I am uncertain exactly what information is relevant to secondary screening selections, I have provide information below which would, in the course of most discussions, be considered irrelevant, perhaps even insulting. This includes descriptions regarding gender, age, height and weight. Since we have no data regarding patterns of secondary screening decisions, I have to assume that this type of information is, indeed, highly relevant. In fact, it appears to be all the information we have.)
As I approached the conveyor belt, I carried the contents of my mobile office in a soft brief case and a back pack. I am a Caucasian female in my late forties, about five eight, and carrying weight that is in excess of what is recommended for my height. In anticipation of the warmer Florida weather, I was dressed very casually in shorts, sneakers with ankle socks, and I was wearing a lightweight grey sweat shirt (not a zip or a hoodie) over a t-shirt. As I stepped through the metal detector, I was told to “Please step over here.”
The uniformed, Caucasian-female screener, likely in her late thirties or early forties, similar to me in height and weight, directed me toward the Full-body Imaging machine. I said simply, “No.”
She was momentarily stunned and asked me to repeat myself. I said “No. If I don’t have to do it, I am not going to do it.”
She told me to step aside to wait and radioed to someone that I had refused the scanner.
As I waited, I reflected that of my last five trips through security, I had been selected for secondary screening three times, twice at BWI. I recalled that within the past year, I have been selected for secondary screening on countless additional trips, but I didn’t start keeping count, regrettably, until the trip in October that generated that first HLS Watch.com blog article.
I considered what the word “random” really means. I wondered why I could not randomly win the lottery as often as I had been selected for secondary screening.
Within a few moments, I was met by another uniformed agent, who directed me to a glass-enclosed cubicle located between the screening belts for the B gates at BWI. On my way to the cubicle, I had observed a sign indicating that travelers have the right to decline the imaging machine and “request” a pat-down instead. It struck me as odd that in order to really see and absorb the information posted on the sign, you would have already passed by or through the imaging machine.
As I stepped into the cubicle, I was informed by my newly assigned screener that I would be patted down. The screener, an African-American female most likely in her late twenties, shorter and slimmer than me, struck me as professional, almost pleasant. It is important to reiterate that this screener had no role in my selection. She asked whether I had “been through this process before.” I answered that I had. As I placed my feet on the outlines on the rug and raised my arms from my sides, I wondered how many people she has searched also responded “Yes” to that question. I lamented all the data lost by the failure to track those responses. She then asked me if I would be more comfortable in a “private” setting. I chuckled as the inquiry, while thoughtful, felt oddly ironic. I declined.
My screener then informed me about how she would conduct the search, and stated to me that when she got to a sensitive area, she would “use the back of my hand” to touch that area. Again, as a retired police officer who has searched hundreds of people over the course of my career, I know that you just can’t feel much with the back of a gloved hand. God forbid, I thought to myself, that the screener, who had displayed what I felt to be genuine concern for my privacy, should be fully able to detect any weapons or contraband I might be secreting.
As she commenced the search by patting down my hair (brown, thinning and collar-length), I launched what in my old job would have been considered a classic field interview.
This type of interview, when done right, consists of a series of related questions asked in a rapid fire manner. The speed is critical as it offers the subject little time (theoretically, anyway) to effectively fabricate information and it also leaves little time for the subject to become defensive. I needed to tread a fine line between quickly obtaining meaningful information and becoming too aggressive.
Fortunately, my screener was very open and forthcoming. I asked, “How are people selected for secondary searches?. She replied “It’s random.”
I asked “Is there a mark on my boarding pass?” She replied, “We used to do that, but we don’t do it anymore.” She did not know why that practice had been discontinued.
I stated “So you look at people as they are entering the metal detector, you make some type of assessment, and then you select people for secondary searches, right?”
She replied, “Well, sometimes if you are wearing bulky clothing, you get selected.”
I said, “Can’t you tell people to take the clothing off?’
She replied, laughing, “No. We can’t tell people to take their clothes off.”
My own experience indicates that to be less than accurate information. I have been frequently directed to remove coats, sweaters and sweat shirts in the past. Regardless, she seemed to be implying that I had been selected due to the fact that I was wearing a sweat-shirt.
At this point, I turned to look over my shoulder and observed a Caucasian woman in her late thirties or early forties standing inside the whole-body imager. I called my screener’s attention to this and said. “Look over there. There’s a woman in the scanner. You all picked me for a search, and then the very next person you select is a woman. Why didn’t you pick a white guy? Where are all the white guys?”
She replied, helpfully, “We are understaffed today and we don’t have enough male screeners to do pat downs. We are not allowed to do opposite sex pat-downs so we are only selecting women for secondary screening.”
By this point, I was seated and she was patting down the bottom of my feet. The secondary search, more thorough than the last search I had been subjected to in Albany, but equally ineffective, was nearing completion. I said “If you are only selecting women, how is that random?”
She said, “You’re done. You can collect your belongings, Have a nice day.”
If I had not already been sitting down, I would likely have fallen over. So much for random searches. I gathered my belongings and wandered off in search of a lottery ticket.