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Racial profiling at Logan Airport undermines security and freedom

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  August 12, 2012 11:35 AM

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Reports that the so-called "behavioral detection program" at Logan Airport leads to racial profiling is front-page news in today's Sunday New York Times. You have to admire the courage of the TSA screeners who raised the alarm that pressure from TSA management to meet quotas leads to targeting of passengers based on their race, ethnicity, and religion-- even when they clearly pose no terrorist threat.

Programs based on behavioral assessment have never been shown to keep us safe or to stop terrorists. In fact, a recent investigation by the General Accounting Office suggests that the program was adopted despite having no scientific basis. That, when combined with pressure on TSA screeners to meet artificial quotas for reporting "suspicious" behaviors, clearly results in pressure on TSA screeners to profile people based on the way they look -- rather than how they act.

“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 one white officer, who along with four others spoke with The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.
They and additional officers who spoke with the ACLU are all terrified of retaliation for raising their voices against this practice.

Even interim CEO and Executive Director of Massport David S. Mackey admits that racial profiling doesn't keep us safe, saying, "There is no place for racial profiling in any security program. It is illegal, and it is not effective.”

To make matters worse, this isn't the first indication that "behavioral detection" leads to racial profiling. Similar abuse of the program has been reported in New Jersey and Hawaii. Ironically, the TSA responded by sending in Logan TSA screeners to "train" TSA screeners in those states. If Logan airport is the model for the rest of the nation, we're in trouble.

The TSA has promised to "investigate" the reports of abuse and racial profiling at Logan Airport. But TSA managers at Logan and in Washington are the ones to be investigated since they have been pushing the employees to pull large numbers of people for more screening, leading to the racial profiling. They are the ones who have access to the data that will demonstrate that the system is broken, but say they don’t have any data. As a result, they are likely to put on a show of investigating the allegations, making real change unlikely.

Meanwhile, the GAO has done its own investigation of the program in the past and, as a result of its findings, has urged Congress to freeze the budget for behavioral detection programs until and unless there is actual scientific evidence that it works. Congressman Bennie Thompson has taken the lead in calling for closer scrutiny of the program and the allegations of racial profiling at the nation’s airports.

Meanwhile, the TSA employees at Logan have long complained of favoritism and the rewarding of employees who engage in racial profiling. Low morale is a persistent problem. When employees are terrified of retaliation, they are reluctant to come forward to tell managers directly of what would improve the workplace. If airline safety were really the goal, we should all be concerned when these employees are too afraid to criticize openly bad management practices.

All Americans want to fly safely. We should praise the behavior detection officers who have been appalled by the racial profiling some of their co-workers have engaged in, with the approval of management, and have bravely raised their voices against it.

Wasting scarce public safety resources on unproven security programs that violate the rights of innocent people and divert attention away from true threats doesn't keep anyone safe -- and certainly doesn't keep America free.

Update: The Globe reports that Representative William Keating is calling for a congressional hearing on the “behavior detection” program and racial profiling. Read more.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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