NEWARK — An internal TSA report finding that Hispanic passengers were racially profiled at Newark Liberty International Airport has revived concerns that security screeners may have engaged in racial profiling at airports nationwide, according to local sources.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, has written to Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole, demanding that a program designed to detect suspicious behavior at airports be suspended because it may be biased.
In June, a story in New Jersey Star-Ledger revealed that a TSA inquiry had concluded that behavior detection officers were routinely singling out Mexican and Dominican passengers for scrutiny of passports and visas and questioning, even though they exhibited no signs of suspect behavior.
Thompson has been critical of the TSA program since 2010, when an audit by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, found that immigration violations accounted for nearly 40 percent of all airport arrests initiated by the behavior detection program, known by acronym SPOT, which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques.
"I feel this statistic implies that there could be racial or ethnic biases influencing SPOT referrals," Thompson wrote in his June 21 letter to Pistole.
The Star-Ledger report raised new questions he said.
In fact, recent media reports about minorities being targeted by behavior detection officers at Newark Liberty International Airport have verified this concern, he said.
Asked to comment on Thompson’s letter, the agency said it would respond directly to the congressman. A spokesman for Thompson, Adam Comis, said yesterday that he was unaware of any response.
Regarding the arrest statistics cited in the GAO report, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein issued the following statement: "We have document checkers who are trained to detect fraudulent documents such as licenses, boarding passes, passports and the like. As part of their jobs, they are focused on the validity of the documents that people present at the checkpoint." Nonetheless, Farbstein said the TSA took Thompson’s concerns about racial profiling very seriously, and she pointed to steps the security agency had taken at Newark Liberty to quash the practice there.
In Newark’s case, the internal TSA report attributed the racial profiling there to a group of rogue screeners and managers, nicknamed "the Great Mexican Hunters" by TSA colleagues, who used the practice to boost their referral numbers in an attempt to appear productive. In response to the report’s findings, the TSA said it retrained the airport’s entire behavior detection unit to ensure that racial profiling did not recur.
Other lawmakers who have expressed concern over racial profiling under the SPOT program include the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), and a member of New Jersey’s House delegation, Rep. Rush Holt, who has also criticized the TSA’s use of full-body scanners for privacy and health reasons. Mica, now chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, added racial profiling to his list of concerns after his initial criticism of the SPOT program last year.
"It’s not a racial detection program," said Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Mica. "It’s a behavior-detection program."