More than 30 federal officers with the Transportation Safety Administration in Boston have reported that a new passenger screening program frequently leads to racial profiling, the New York Times reported over the weekend. The news made waves in part because the program that’s in question at Boston’s Logan airport is being eyed as a potential model for airports across the country. But for black passengers who’ve already been targeted, news of the report, and the potential for accountability, were welcome — and clear signs that it’s not so easy to be “race-neutral” in an already flawed method of surveillance.
It’s never seemed random to me,” Steven Wellman, a computer programmer who’s black and flew into Logan airport on Sunday, told the Boston Globe. “When I travel alone, I am pulled from the line every single time — every single time.”
That sentiment was shared by another black man who once sued the airport after being illegally detained. King Downing is an attorney and director of the Human Rights-Racial Justice Center who was moved to legal action in 2003. “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,” Downing told the Globe. “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.”The TSA officers’ steps in reporting their concerns is unprecedented, according to the Times, which reported:
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 behavior detection program is no longer a behavior-based program, but it is a racial profiling program,” one officer wrote in an anonymous complaint obtained by The Times.
Workers first brought the case to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union months ago, but the initial query was hampered by their fear of reprisals. “They were terrified of retaliation,” Sarah Wunsch, an attorney with the ACLU’s Boston office, told the Globe. “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.”
“I’m a little depressed,” Jack McDevitt told the Globe. McDevitt is the 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.”
Massachusetts Port Authority, which oversees Boston’s Logan International Airport, said that it is taking the allegations seriously.