Profiling by Any Other Name is Still Profiling

Most liberals have an anaphylactic reaction to the notion of “profiling.” The most strident example of their hyperventilation has been over New York City’s stop and frisk program, which empowers police officers to stop pedestrians and search them for weapons or other contraband (e.g., drugs). The program has been wildly successful in reducing crime in New York, but it has resulted in a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic males being stopped relative to other categories of people.

As I’ve written before, I find it terribly tragic that African Americans and Hispanics commit crimes at a significantly higher rate than whites. It goes to some core challenges in our country including education and poverty, both of which hit those minority groups hard and desperately need to be addressed (by, for example, wresting control of education away from the unions and putting it in the hands of parents). But, facts are facts and, as of today, the two minority groups commit a disproportionate number of crimes. So, if you’re a cop out looking for possible criminals, it’s not statistically inappropriate to stop and frisk those folks who are mathematically more likely to be on the verge of committing a crime at a higher rate than those who aren’t. In fact, if the numbers ran the other way, you’d have to wonder what the heck the cops are thinking.

But, I don’t live in New York so, while I hope for the sake of those who do and for my occasional visits, the new mayor keeps that program in tact, frankly it doesn’t affect me much. The actions of the TSA do. Because I travel a lot. Like every friggin’ week. There’s been no shortage of whining from all sides about airport security post 9-11. Anyone who travels frequently knows that most of what goes on in the airport security line is all about making passengers feel safe without actually adding anything to our safety. We’ve consistently chased yesterday’s problem by restricting liquids or making everyone expose their stinky socks. And, it is a huge hassle.

Early on, many of us noted that the statistical likelihood of a little old lady being a terrorist was a lot lower than a 25 year old man with a dark beard. But, alas, the anti-profiling crowd won the first round and my 76 year old mom has been getting the same level of scrutiny as anyone else in the line. That’s sheer lunacy.

Here’s the interesting twist that has not been reported on. Your federal government has finally agreed that profiling makes sense at airports and they are instituting a program to do it. But, they’ve been very clever about it, knowing the heat that the local folks took in New York for their very successful stop and frisk program. It would be too obvious to split air passengers into two security lines labeled, respectively, “High Risk” and “Low Risk” and funnel people who look a certain way or fit a certain profile into the “High Risk” line. The outcry from the left would be shrill. So, what they have very quietly done is start funneling everyone else into the “Low Risk” line. They call it TSA Pre-Check. You may have heard about it.

When TSA started Pre-Check, I was ecstatic. I had to pay about $100 and undergo a background check, but once I was admitted into the program, I was able to go through a special security line that used the old metal detectors instead of the full body search (sorry ladies behind the full body scan curtain), where shoes and jackets stay on, and laptops stay in the bag. In the early days of Pre-Check, very few people had access to it and I could get from my car to my gate in about 5 minutes, unheard of in post 9-11 airport navigation. But, something interesting has happened on the way to TSA profiling. No longer does one have to enroll in the program. No longer is a background check required. No longer does one have to pay a fee to get in. And, most interesting of all, the Pre-Check lines at some airports (notably Miami International) are often significantly longer than the “regular line.” A senior ticketing agent at MIA explained to me that the goal was to have well over half of all passengers going through the Pre-Check line.

I went to the TSA website and learned that, in addition to the background check approach to getting into the program, they’ve now added this to the website

This is a bunch of fancy language that says you’re a low-risk passenger based on some really obvious criteria (age, gender, nationality, etc.). In other words, you done been profiled, my friend.

As a frequent traveler, I’m miserable about this. The Pre-Check line moves a bit faster, though the sudden presence of a bunch of 76 year old women (sorry mom) traveling to see their grandchildren has slowed things way down. They don’t know to leave their shoes and coats on and to leave their laptops and knitting needles in their carry on. But, of course, it all makes perfect sense. The TSA is just now acknowledging what was intuitively obvious on Sept. 12, 2001. Some folks are a higher security risk based on some pretty darn basic data and observations. Ignoring that and screening everyone with the same level of scrutiny makes us less safe and more inconvenienced. I think we’d all be better off if we could have an honest discussion about this as opposed to bringing such a policy in through the back door, as TSA has done, but better to do it sneakily than not at all. Even if it is making my life more miserable.

One final interesting comment on the TSA’s tacit admission that profiling makes sense. To accomplish their profiling strategy, they’ve now funneled the low-risk people back into metal detectors instead of full body scanners. The TSA spent about $150 million outfitting airports with the scanners and some estimates are much higher. The new profiling program is an implicit concession that much of that money was wasted, as low-risk passengers are put back into simple metal detectors. An honest dialogue about this stuff from the outset would have saved this wasted money.

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About Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson is an amateur writer and professional provocateur
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2 Responses to Profiling by Any Other Name is Still Profiling

  1. Mom says:

    Bruce is right: his 76-year-old mom once even got “randomly selected” (yeah, right: random) for the full pat-down. It’s a deeply humiliating experience, as the TSA lady runs her hands under your waistband almost down to your crotch and gently pats your boobs (while saying, “I’m using only the backs of my hands,” as if that should matter). Gray hair, two rotten knees, one rotten shoulder, some arthritis in both hands, etc., I’m a really threatening-looking old lady.

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