More than 30 federal officers in an airport program intended to spot telltale mannerisms of potential terrorists say the operation has become a magnet for racial profiling, targeting not only Middle Easterners but also blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.
In interviews and internal complaints, officers from the Transportation Security Administration’s “behavior detection” program at Logan International Airport in Boston asserted that passengers who fit certain profiles—Hispanics traveling to Miami, for instance, or blacks wearing baseball caps backward—are much more likely to be stopped, searched and questioned for “suspicious” behavior.
“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.
While the Obama administration has attacked the use of racial and ethnic profiling in Arizona and elsewhere, the claims by the Boston officers now put the agency and the administration in the awkward position of defending themselves against charges of profiling in a program billed as a model for airports nationwide.
At a meeting last month with T.S.A. officials, officers at Logan provided written complaints about profiling from 32 officers, some of whom wrote anonymously. Officers said managers’ demands for high numbers of stops, searches and criminal referrals had led co-workers to target minorities in the belief that those stops were more likely to yield drugs, outstanding arrest warrants or immigration problems.
The practice has become so prevalent, some officers said, that Massachusetts State Police officials have asked why minority members appear to make up an overwhelming number of the cases that the airport refers to them.
The complaints from the Logan officers carry nationwide implications because Boston is the testing ground for an expanded use of behavioral detection methods at airports around the country.
While 161 airports already use behavioral officers to identify possible terrorist activity—a controversial tactic—the agency is considering expanding the use of what it says are more advanced tactics nationwide, with Boston’s program as a model.
The program in place in Boston uses specially trained behavioral “assessors” not only to scan the lines of passengers for unusual activity, but also to speak individually with each passenger and gauge their reactions while asking about their trip or for other information.
Officers in Boston acknowledged that they had no firm data on how frequently minority members were stopped. But based on their own observations, several officers estimated that they accounted for as many as 80 percent of passengers searched during certain shifts.
The officers identified nearly two dozen co-workers who they said consistently focused on stopping minority members in response to pressure from managers to meet certain threshold numbers for referrals to the State Police, federal immigration officials or other agencies.