Police veteran critiques TSA procedure

Deirdre Walker, a 24-year police veteran who retired after serving as the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police writes up a recent interaction with the TSA in the Albany airport, subjecting it to critical policing analysis and finding it sorely, sorely wanting. This is a very good critical piece on conducting good security and curbing excess, and if there were any justice in this world, this woman would be put in charge of the TSA tomorrow.
Finally, I am most concerned about the "random" nature of my repeated selection for secondary screening. If there is no discrimination at work, and my selection is entirely random, then we have yet another, and probably more significant problem.

For years in policing, we relied on random patrols to curb crime. We relied upon this "strategy" until someone went out and captured some data, and did a study that demonstrated conclusively that random patrols do not work (Kansas City Study).

As police have employed other types of "random" interventions, as in DWI checkpoints, they have had to develop policies, procedures and training to ensure that the "random" nature of these intrusions is truly random. Whether every car gets checked, or every tenth car, police must demonstrate that they have attempted to eliminate the effects of active and passive discrimination when using "random" strategies. No such accountability currently exists at TSA.

* "Do I have the right to refuse this search?"


    1. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the site on my end right now, sleze, perhaps try again?

      Thank you for the article, Cory, I greatly enjoyed having a real law enforcement officer’s critique of TSA procedure (or lack thereof). I do believe that security at the gateway to our airports is necessary, but I’m much less sure as to whether we should have that security administered by a federal agency (as opposed to the old system of private security firms), let alone by an agency that was formed specifically as a counter-response to the events of 9/11.

      On the whole, the issues described by Ms. Walker disturb me, and I hope that we’ll be able to have a more intelligent screening process beyond the disgusting mess that Americans and our country’s guests have been forced to deal with for the past eight years. The time for such critical analyses to be put into practice is long overdue.

  1. For some reason every time I fly I am pulled aside for a bag search. The thing I notice is that the person at the conveyor belt before the xray machine always catches the attention of the xray screener. The xray screener then yells bag check and off I go while they swab some kind of cotton pad over the insides of the bag. It also doesn’t matter if I go through the “puffer” or the regular metal detector. My bag has a camera, a few lenses and an iPod in it. No food or liquids.

    1. I assume that you do not have blue eyes and blonde hair, Dave…

      \Neither do I
      \\I feel like I should just put the “SSSS” on my ticket myself

      1. Ahh thanks for the conspiracy.
        I assume that you do not have blue eyes and blonde hair, Dave…
        \Neither do I
        \\I feel like I should just put the “SSSS” on my ticket myself”
        I’m 6’2″ white male blonde, no tats, no piercings, average attractiveness, boy scout, no criminal history and I’ve been pulled aside on 4 of 12 flights, 3 of them for the extra, lets talk in this little room alone, while people pull everything out of your bag screening.

        Maybe it’s my hazel eyes. I’ve NEVER been pulled aside when on business.

        It’s 5 of 4 on personal trips.

      2. Indeed. I get this designation every damned time I fly.

        WTF did I do to garner this special attention? Seriously? I’m a reasonably small, pasty-white female with a very flat mid-west accent (until I have a couple beers, then there’s no mistaking the fact that I grew up in Minnesota). Perhaps my crime is not bleaching my hair blond. Or being a professional engineer. Or having my ears pierced more than once. Or having tatoos. Or not belonging to a political party, but still voting.

        It’s not random if it happens to the same person every single time they fly.

        1. The AIRLINES are selecting you randomly or based upon certain travel criteria for the secondary screening..NOT The TSA. Please pass on the word and complain to your Airline.

  2. Bravo to the lady police officer who wrote this – very detailed, passionate, yet precisely to the point.
    I’ve been a veteran traveler myself. As an electronics field engineer for tankerships, I’ve traveled around the world (36 countries at last count) carrying laptop bag, case of tools and spare parts, as well as clothes, etc.
    I’m just over 6 feet tall, male, blond hair, blue eyes, and BEARDED.
    The fact that I traveled alone, with a last-minute ticket purchase, PLUS being bearded is what I believe qualified me for extra attention (apparently all terrorists have beards). Never mind the fact that I’m native born, with a slight southern accent. I traveled before AND after 9/11, and subsequent to that date in our history, was subjected to lots more scrutiny while traveling, and have seen many of the same things Diedre wrote about – the fallacy of the ‘random’ checks, the blustering, the raised voices, the perfunctory and inefficient ‘pat-downs’, all which point to the things she points out so well in her post.
    I wonder if anyone can point the big dogs at TSA at her post – and MAKE them read it and answer 20 in-depth questions about it to PROVE they’ve read it …
    Maybe then, our security wouldn’t be so much ‘theatre’ and more likely to actually do what it’s SUPPOSED to do – and make air travel safer for all.

  3. I haven’t had the need to fly in years, but the more I read about the TSA and stories such as this, it reinforces my opinion that the TSA does absolutely nothing to prevent any actual terrorism. If we truly want to make our airports safe, we need to stop this “security theatre” and actually hire some real police officers to do the job of these wage slaves who don’t care about your safety as much as they do about their paycheck.

    As a commenter said on the linked site “…they are going through the motions and collecting paychecks…”

  4. What is it with people having to first retire before they speak out against idiocy? Presidents do this, as do senators. Granted, this guy didn’t retire from TSA, but it’s a similar field.

    Why don’t folks speak out against what they see as wrong while they still have the power to effect something. Better yet, DO something while still working in the field…

    1. I’m not sure what your concern is. The *lady* that wrote this column is not from a “similar field.” It’s the complete opposite — her entire column is about how her career experience, where every search must be recorded, highlights why and how the TSA is unaccountable.

      I don’t understand how local law enforcement, which is regulated by the municipality, has anything to do with a federal responsibility like airport security. They don’t talk to each other.

  5. > It was not so much the search (then) as it was the
    > embarrassment of being singled out, effectively being
    > told “You are different,” but getting no explanation
    > as to why.

    The former police officer makes good points. And that is probably one of the greatest problems with random selection. People are very good at picking out things that are different. They are nowhere near as good as picking out things which are suspicious or threatening.

  6. Why should the TSA take criticism from the police?

    Is crime prevention the TSA mandate? No.

    Is protecting and serving the TSA mandate? No.

    The TSA, simply put, are not police.

    1. “The TSA, simply put, are not police.”

      Then what ARE they supposed to be, as no one can tell?

      1. Then what ARE they supposed to be, as no one can tell?

        They are supposed to be extremely discouraging. Seriously. That’s about all they’re for.

        1. “The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is a U.S. government law enforcement agency that was created as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush on November 19, 2001. The agency is responsible for security in all modes of transportation.”

          …Sounds like a duck…

          1. …Sounds like a duck…

            okay, ask one of them to arrest you.

            The TSA agent will call over a policeman, and he will arrest you, because the TSA does not have the power of arrest, because they are not police.

            but they want you to respect them, so they walk, talk, dress, and are arrogant, just like the di… ducks they wish they had gotten the grades in high school to be.

          2. Nope, not a duck. It’s not even a waterfowl.

            The TSA does employ some law enforcement officers but so does practically every other Federal agency as well. TSA screeners are not law enforcement and receive no law enforcement training.

            Here’s an article about some LE response to the TSA screener uniform change from last year:


            The screener job series is SV-1802, which is officially a “transportation security officer.” The “1802” series specification refers to “Compliance Inspection and Support” according to OPM.

        2. “…just hall monitors…”

          This last week, I was flying from Seattle to Ontario, California, and had this same thought.

          It’s the lines that mess me up. Because there are so many people standing behind me, and I’m aware that we all are on a schedule, then I feel a social pressure to remove my shoes, take out my laptop, take off my jacket, empty my pockets and put four bins through the x-ray machine. Then, because I know the next person is waiting for me to collect all my stuff, there’s this immense sense of discombobulation on the other wide of the x-ray machine. Picking everything up, trying to put things back where they came out of…

          And after I drug my belongings, shoes in hand, over to a bench to recompose myself and get my shoes back on, I said to my traveling partner: I don’t think the job of the TSA is really to find or stop anything, it’s just to keep us all feeling scrambled. Were I a terrorist, just the process of trying to act normal while keeping track of my shoes, coat and wallet would keep me off my game.

          So, really, the TSA’s task seems to be nothing more than to disrupt people’s routines.

    2. “Is crime prevention the TSA mandate? No.”

      Are you saying a terrorist attack is not a crime? TSA’s specific mandate is to prevent terrorist attacks. The problem is the usual Washington scam of “we have to DO something” and then not providing enough funds to do the job properly (i.e., require Bachelor’s level education in law enforcement and security, and pay folks enough money to justify the investment in their education.). TSA is really just the Republican version of an extension of unemployment benefits.

  7. mdh | #10 | 08:02 on Fri, Oct.30 | Reply

    Why should the TSA take criticism from the police?

    Because the police have centuries of collective experience in law enforcement and crime prevention, perhaps?

    Is crime prevention the TSA mandate? No.

    Last time I looked, hijacking an aircraft or sneaking a bomb onto an aircraft was a serious crime. I haven’t read today’s newspaper, so unless those specific laws have been repealed, it’s still a crime to do that.

    Is protecting and serving the TSA mandate? No.

    Protecting against bombs and guns being smuggled onto a civilian passenger jet strikes me as very “protective”. But that’s just me.

    The TSA, simply put, are not police.

    So, lets put REAL police with REAL oversight in their place, along with sensible regulations about what is and isn’t permitted onboard.


  8. It has long been my opinion that the goal of the TSA is to make air travel so intolerable that the only people who will attempt it are fanatic terrorists, which will allow them to have a 100% conviction rate.

  9. Great article and a must read.

    jvilhuber: As for why law enforcement or politicians speak out after they retire it is because they have their cushy gov’t retirement benefits and pensions in place with no worries of losing these…

  10. RE: “random” screening

    I know about getting the “SSSS” on the boarding pass – have had that a few times. But the random screening thing – exactly when does your selection happen for that? Do they just pick you out of the line while you’re standing there?

    My point is, that unless you have something marked on your boarding pass that says “random search this person”, then the search has nothing do with your name, your flight destination, your past flight history, belonging to some club or organizaiton, or anything like that which would be in a database somewhere.

    Assuming again that it’s not because of a flag on your boarding pass, it’s got everything to do with just randomness and how you are perceived at that point in time. It’s got nothing to do with your past or your profile based on data. But it may have something to do with profiling you on the spot.

    1. holtt- the problem is that some of us get the 4s treatment every single time we fly. Period. Extra TSA lovin’ for us for no discernable reason.

      Anon @ 19 may have a good point. I don’t fly for business. I only fly on personal trips.

  11. It would help if all involved took an intro to statistics class so they could learn what “random” actually means. It doesn’t mean “based on whims” as TSA seem to think.

  12. Great article!

    Once I got the “S”s on my boarding pass and got called for extra screening and asked why. They told me, correctly, that I had a one-way ticket (it was one of those occasions where flying there with one airline and then returning home on another was actually cheaper, because I found some good deals last-minute). So that information isn’t necessarily unreachable, or at least it wasn’t at the time.

    And in response to “Dave|#3|06:04”; My bag with two SLRs and three lenses (and extra batteries and so on) often gets the “bag check”. They say there are too many layers of electronics and they can’t really see stuff well on the X-ray. I suppose I’ll buy that.

    Hmmm, looking at what I just wrote, it might look like I’m trying to defend the TSA. Don’t get me wrong: They are incompetent, useless, a big pain in the butt, and do what they do just for show. Of COURSE. But not EVERYTHING they do is COMPLETELY crazy, and sometimes when you ask, you get a semi-reasonable answer. (Of course, ideally one should expect an entirely reasonable answer all of the time, but the TSA is far from idea. How does the phrase go… “Close enough for government work”).

  13. My favorite definition of random by TSA happened a few years ago at the Saint Louis Airport. I was standing first in line to board. Although I had been told by other waiting passengers that the first person was always pulled aside for a baggage check at the gate, I held my position. Sure enough I was approached and asked to open my carry-on baggage. I commented that I had been told that the first person in line was always selected. The examiner said that they always selected the 1st, Xst, and Yst person in line. I said “That didn’t appear to be very random.” His answer was that the people in those positions were random.

    Oh, yes. He also broke my laptop when attempting to close the bag containing it.

  14. It’s gratifying to hear someone who’s been in a position of authority reiterate what we all know to be true.

    …But as I read this, all I could think of, was building seven. If this kind of thoughtful police review were applied to just that one single aspect of the 9-11 cluster-fuck, how many more questions could be put to rest?

    I suppose if we’re kept busy griping about air travel, more substantial complaints can get lost in the noise.

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