TSA Vows to Act on Claims of Racial Profiling at Logan
By Jenna Russell and Wesley Lowery
Reports of widespread racial profiling at Logan International Airport — and news of a federal investigation into the practice — have provoked concern and calls for change, but little surprise.
More than 30 officers who administer a “behavior detection” program at the airport have filed internal complaints about colleagues who target minorities in security checks, The New York Times reported Sunday. The Transportation Security Administration is investigating the allegations.
But many travelers at Logan said the news was less than shocking and merely reinforced their belief that screenings at the airport are largely based on race.
“It’s never seemed random to me,” said Steven Wellman, a computer programmer from Worcester who is black and flew into Logan Sunday, after a trip to visit family in Bermuda. “When I travel alone, I am pulled from the line every single time — every single time.”
King Downing, a black lawyer and civil rights activist who sued the Boston airport after he was illegally detained there in 2003, said he hopes increased attention will force changes.
“No one should be surprised, because it’s been going on for years, at airports and in other law enforcement situations, and there has been evidence of it for years,” said Downing, of New York, the director of the Human Rights-Racial Justice Center. “My first reaction was, ‘Finally; it’s about time.’ Now let’s see if we can do something about it. It’s been way too long.”
Concerns about racial profiling at Logan came to a head last month, the Times reported, at a meeting where numerous officers submitted written complaints. They said minorities including black, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern passengers had been routinely pulled aside for searches and questioning, in screenings designed to scan for suspicious behavioral cues such as sweating, fidgeting, or avoiding eye contact.
Experts on security screening practices said the news out of Logan was especially disappointing because the use of behavior detection was developed as a way to avoid profiling by race. The Boston program had been touted as a model of more sophisticated screening.
“I’m a little depressed,” said Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, which documented widespread racial inequities in a 2004 study of traffic stops by Massachusetts police. “I had hoped that using behavioral cues could be race neutral. . . . It shows how hard it is to disentangle race.”
The Transportation Security Administration vowed in a statement e-mailed to the Globe on Sunday to “take immediate and decisive action” if the claims about profiling are proven accurate.
“Racial profiling is not tolerated within the ranks of TSA,” the statement said. “Profiling is not only discriminatory, but it is also an ineffective way to identify someone intent on doing harm.”
The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs the airport, called racial profiling illegal and ineffective.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” David S. Mackey, Massport’s interim chief executive and director, said in a statement Sunday. “We are eager to review the findings of a federal investigation.”
Officers who complained recently about profiling at Logan suggested that mounting pressure from program managers to tally high numbers of stops and searches may have contributed to an increase in the practice.
More than a half-dozen airport officers, some white and some minority, brought their concerns to the Boston office of the American Civil Liberties Union several months ago, said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney there, after their attempts to address the problem with their supervisors were unsuccessful.
“They were terrified of retaliation,” Wunsch said in a phone interview Sunday. “Some had tried to raise the issue internally and there were repercussions, so they felt they needed help. . . . They were concerned that management was pushing them to do this kind of [profiling], and they were seeing newer employees doing it, and these longer-serving employees were appalled.”
She said the officers’ fears of punishment were heightened in a workplace atmosphere with longstanding low morale, where favoritism was frequently alleged… - The Boston Globe