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Adrian Walker

TSA employees had to go outside system to report profiling

The office of the American Civil Liberties Union isn’t the obvious place for frustrated public employees to lodge complaints against their bosses.

But about six months ago, when members of the Transportation Services Administration wanted to talk about racial profiling at Logan International Airport, that’s where they found themselves. This was because their supervisors in Washington had ignored their claims that a program to identify potential terrorists had morphed into a means to harass black and brown air travelers.

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The workers had written letters to TSA officials in Washington. At least one had sent a letter to a member of Congress. And they had gotten nowhere.

Their charges burst into public view Sunday, when the New York Times reported that approximately 30 employees have complained about what they believe is racial profiling at the airport.

“I think some of the behavior-detection agents had reached a point of desperation and somehow found their way to us, and we were responsive,” ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch said Sunday. “A few of them had tried to raise this internally, and word got around that you raise this at your peril.”

The program they work in is supposed to be a national model, intended to catch potential terrorists by detecting odd behavior patterns. Behavior-detection officers were to intercept such passengers as they waited in line, question them closely about their plans, and gauge their responses.

But, Wunsch said, as pressure mounted to pull more people out of line — they actually had a monthly quota to meet — some officers resorted to the shady practice of old-fashioned profiling — detaining Latinos traveling to Miami, for example, or well-dressed black men. Because such people met some purely illusory standard of risk.

Understand that the employees support the original goal of the program. “They are disgusted by what they see as a perversion of the program,” Wunsch said. “I have to say a good number of the people we talked to are white, and I’m encouraged to have seen that. You don’t always see white people sticking their necks out about racial profiling.”

Employees have complained that the profiling, besides being discriminatory, just distracts officers from focusing on the traits they’re really supposed to be seeking out.

What happens now is open to question. Many complaints that originated with the ACLU have been turned over to TSA officials in Washington, who are investigating.

Of course, it’s Massport’s airport. In a statement, interim chief executive David S. Mackey strongly declared his agency’s opposition to racial profiling in any security program and added he was eager to see the results of Washington’s findings.

Actually, some of the security officers most disturbed by the profiling program are members of the Massachusetts State Police. They are forced to respond when the TSA alerts them to suspicious behavior and are tired of wasting their time on more and more frivolous claims, said Wunsch.

Michael Curry, president of the Boston NAACP, likens the activity at Logan to the claims of racial profiling made against local police a few years ago. In that case, a program that forced departments to record whom they were stopping for traffic violations was credited with reducing the amount of racial harassment. He believes that if the TSA had to account for its acts, the result could be similar.

“If we don’t collect figures, then we have to rely on courageous internal people to step up and blow the whistle,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Curry said he thinks passengers have been reluctant to complain because many Muslims and people of color have come to expect harassment as part of the heightened security that has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “We accept that as the price of traveling,” he said.

Curry hailed the Logan whistle-blowers. “I’d describe them as courageous. When people step up at the risk of losing their jobs, those are special people. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of those people.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.
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