« Hiring the Right People | Main | Airport Security: From Dysfunctional to Degrading »

Police Training Can Protect Our Airports

Among the facts that we know about the terrorists who boarded the American and United flights on September 11th, and the one who boarded the American Airlines flight in Paris on December 22nd, is that our Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling System (CAPPS), in use by a number of air carriers for several years, failed to keep armed foreign terrorists at four different airports from boarding five airliners on two different days.

It would be convenient to blame the system for the failures, just as we blame pay scales, employment status, and supervision for the failure of screeners to keep weapons out of the restricted sterile areas of the airports and from aircraft. In both instances, it is the human factors that have turned reasonably good security designs into failures. The screening process could work very well in the hands of professionals. CAPPS, designed to profile passengers by analyzing their travel habits and other characteristics not released to the public for security reasons, could be a very valuable tool in the hands of professionals who know how to use the information it provides.

It is believed that 19 trained terrorists boarded various flights on September 11th intent on hijacking their aircraft. Whether all knew of the intent to convert the planes to missiles of mass destruction is unclear. It is clear that Richard Reid (a.k.a the "Shoe Bomber"), boarded his aircraft after having been questioned at length as a result of being identified by the CAPPS system. The system worked -- the personnel who followed up just weren’t good enough.

MSNBC has identified scores of security-related incidents at our airports since September 11th. Almost every day, passengers have been stopped attempting to get banned items, some of which can be loosely described as weapons, through security. The incidents run the gamut from dangerous weapons to harmless comments interpreted as "threatening" by our corps of security personnel, noted for their shortcomings with the English language. Was it really necessary to have Congressman John Dingell remove his trousers to prove that his hip replacement wasn’t a gun; or to have Congressman Gary Ackerman’s straight pin, used to hold his carnation on his lapel, confiscated? Was the random search of a seven-year-old at the gate in the Miami airport really the best we could do to follow the FAA’s directive for on-going gate searches, even when there were no profiling selectees to search? Was it really necessary to arrest the airline pilot who protested the confiscation of his nail clipper by reminding the screener, quite accurately, that his nail clipper wasn’t necessary for him to take down an airliner?

The incidents described in the MSNBC report clearly show that, at the very least, the screeners currently in place lack judgment; and that the traveling public, to some degree, has no respect for the system or those who operate it. In any event, it should be clear to the new Transportation Security Administration -- which will be relieving the FAA of the burden of airport security this month -- that simply changing the uniforms of the personnel now doing the screening at our airports will not be enough. Nor will paying more money, 100 hours of training, federal supervision, new electronic systems, or further restrictions on carry-on bags be enough. The traveling public is demanding, and is entitled to, security professionals at all levels in our aviation security system. Unless this happens, we are likely to witness more of the same: closing of terminals; re-routing or delaying of departures; re-screening of whole terminals of passengers; frivolous arrests; and the need for secondary searches to screen for the weapons, incendiaries and bombs missed at the primary screening stations.

Americans have never been comfortable with security. Until recently, we have rarely shown a high-enough level of respect for our law enforcement personnel, and virtually none for the army of private security personnel whose numbers dwarf public law enforcement. As a result, we do not have a good-enough understanding of what good security is. If we did, we would not have tolerated the level that we have for too-long accepted in our airports.

Since September, we have begun to pay more attention to our airport security, but we still fail to understand that large numbers of security personnel, even carrying automatic weapons, does not necessarily equate good security. All of the weapons, electronics, and manpower are meaningless without the right response to a threat stimulus. Passengers who are identified by a computer profile as suspect because of the extent and destination of prior travel need additional screening. Passengers, who pay for their tickets with cash need additional screening. Passengers with one-way tickets need additional screening. Passengers traveling transcontinentally or internationally without checked baggage need additional screening. Passengers with newly issued passports need additional screening. Passengers whose passports are issued by countries that are known to harbor terrorists need additional screening. And those who perform that screening need the skill and ability demonstrated day in and day out, year in and year out, by the men and women of our nation’s police departments.

To appreciate why we must immediately utilize the talents of the hundreds of thousands of our nation’s retired law enforcement personnel, we need to understand what skills are needed right now in our airports, and what we will need in years to come. It is necessary right now to provide a consistently high level of security at every airport if we are to deal with the terrorist threat. If access to the aviation system by a terrorist is easier in Bozeman, Montana, because of a lesser security standard there, then that will be the entry point for a terrorist. (To secure a transcontinental flight from Boston in order to have enough fuel to bring down the World Trade Center, Mohammed Atta and those traveling with him entered the aviation system in Portland, Maine.) If baggage screened at a small local airport cannot be screened by an electronic detection system for a bomb because the equipment is not available, that will be the place for a bomb to be boarded, especially if the bag is to be connected to another flight where there is no additional screening offered or no passenger bag matching for connecting passengers.

Sorting through the complex information about passenger profiles, FBI watch lists, security directives, new intelligence information, baggage and cargo screening, violations of SIDA (Security Identification Display Area), and the screening of all airport personnel, will require skills not easily or quickly acquired. Processing millions of adults and children of all ages, physical conditions, backgrounds, personalities, and ability to communicate and understand English, and to do so efficiently, with good judgment and with a sense of authority, will be equally as challenging but as necessary if our airports are to achieve reasonable levels of security.

To add to the mix is a future in which biometrics for identification will play a major role; screening for chemical and biological agents will be a daily requirement; and we will have to adapt to new demands for the processing of more people on more flights and in less time. All this will require a security force with the intellectual ability, flexibility, and education to function in a highly technical workplace. The current work force cannot do the job today, and they will not be able to do it tomorrow.

Right now former law enforcement personnel with thousand of years of people skills, technical skills, law enforcement skills, and the required discipline to quickly take over a failing aviation security system are standing on the sidelines. They are watching the promise of a secure aviation system made to the American people on November 19, 2001, lapse into chaos. Sub-section 44919 of Section 108 of the new law offers an opportunity to demonstrate how already trained and skilled former law enforcement personnel can help fulfill the promises made by Congress; it can and must be used to allow those who have already demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice all in the war against terrorism take their skills into our airports.

Let’s start this program in the venue where this new war was declared: In the airports operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Let us draw from the retired ranks of our local police departments. Let our airports benefit from the on-the-job experience learned from 20 or more years in the world’s most complex and sophisticated society. Let their performance once again inspire their brother and sister officers across the nation to join in protecting our domestic aviation system from terrorists.

Had our former law enforcement personnel been alerted by the stimuli almost certainly coming from our CAPPS system on September 11, 2001, would Mohammed Atta and his fellow terrorists been allowed to board an aircraft with box cutters? Would the judgment that tells an experienced police officer what is and what is not a weapon when in the hands of a given individual been exercised to keep those items out of the hands of these passengers? Would a combination of the existing screening and profiling systems in place on that day have made a difference if in the hands of experienced law enforcement personnel? Can we afford to risk not implementing a change?

Posted on Tuesday, February 12, 2002 at 06:42PM by Registered CommenterCharles Slepian in | Comments Off

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend