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.
Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said the whistle-blowing officers deserve credit for taking a risk.
“It’s uncommon to see that,” he said. “It takes courage to step up. . . . More often, people just accept [profiling] as the cost of traveling. I think that’s where we are as a society: People tolerate it.”
But Curry said it is not enough to wait for whistle-blowers. Airport officers should have ongoing diversity training, he said, and data on security stops should be collected on an ongoing basis, so that selection patterns can be analyzed.
He said the NAACP will ask to work with federal officials as they plan improvements in the airport’s security systems.
“People of color are equally concerned about terrorism; we just don’t want the cost to be our constitutional rights,” said Curry, who recalls being stopped and searched by federal agents in a Midwestern airport as a college student.
Downing, who sued Massport, had arrived in Boston to attend a meeting on racial profiling in the fall of 2003 when he was stopped in the airport and was asked for identification. He declined to provide it and was detained and questioned by State Police.
A federal jury found that his rights had been violated — he reached a settlement with the state trooper responsible — but the jury did not find that airport policies encouraged racial profiling.
He said Sunday that he feels “relieved that the truth is starting to come out, but angry that people are still going through this.”
Not every traveler shared concerns about the airport. George Kofa, an Army veteran and Morehouse College student who was waiting for a flight home to Atlanta at Logan on Sunday, said he believes reports of racial profiling are blown out of proportion.
“People overexaggerate it,” said Kofa, 32, who is black. He said his first experience with Logan Airport went smoothly, without any extra screening.
A native of Liberia, Kofa said he has come to expect tighter security since 9/11. He is a frequent flier, both nationally and internationally, and said it is not uncommon for him to be chosen for additional screening.
But, he said, he doesn’t mind.
“I don’t take any of it personally,” he said.Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.