Racial profiling said to be rife at Boston's Logan Airport
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BOSTON -- 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.
The TSA said on Friday that it had opened an investigation into the claims.
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 TSA 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 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.
A TSA spokesman said agency inspectors recently learned of the racial profiling claims in Boston. "If any of these claims prove accurate, we will take immediate and decisive action to ensure there are consequences to such activity," the statement said.
The agency emphasized that the behavior detection program "in no way encourages or tolerates profiling" and bans singling out passengers based on nationality, race, ethnicity or religion.
It is unusual for transportation agency employees to come forward with this kind of claim against co-workers, and the large number of employees bringing complaints in Boston could prove particularly damaging for an agency already buffeted with criticism over pat-downs, X-ray scans and other security measures.
Reports of profiling emerged last year at the behavior programs at the Newark, N.J., and Hawaii airports, but in much smaller numbers than those described in Boston.
The complaints from the Logan officers carry nationwide implications because Boston is the testing ground for an expanded use of behavioral detection methods nationwide.
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.
The assessors look for inconsistencies in the answers and other signs of unusual behavior, like avoiding eye contact, sweating or fidgeting, officials said. A passenger considered to be acting suspiciously can be pulled from the line and subjected to more intensive questioning.
That is what happened last month at Logan airport to Kenneth Boatner, 68, a psychologist and educational consultant in Boston who was traveling to Atlanta for a business trip.
In a formal complaint he filed with the agency afterward, he said he was pulled out of line and detained for 29 minutes, as agents thumbed through his checkbook and examined his clients' clinical notes, his cellphone and other belongings.
The officers gave no explanation, but Mr. Boatner, who is black, said he suspected the reason he was stopped was his race and appearance. He was wearing sweat pants, a white T-shirt, and high-top sneakers.
He said he felt humiliated. "I had never been subjected to anything like that," he said in an interview.
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 passengers searched during certain shifts.
The transportation agency said it did not collect information on the race or ethnicity of travelers and could not provide such a breakdown of passengers stopped through the behavior program.
But the agency defended the program's overall value as an effective way of identifying potential terrorists.
First Published August 12, 2012 12:00 am