Air Travelers to be Profiled at Screening Stations

This will not be its first attempt in developing a reliable terrorist profile, CAPPS was a program in place before 9/11 which relied principally upon airlines to identify passengers with suspicious travel patterns. On 9/11, according to the 9/11 Commission, 9 of the hijackers were selected for additional screening because the Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling System, (CAPPS) selected them, and 2 others were on the “No Fly List” but obviously allowed to fly anyway. When after 9/11 TSA attempted to improve the CAPPS program, heightened sensitivity to profiling resulted first in changing the term“profiling” to “prescreening” and then to placing the program on a back burner because of fears about racial stereotyping.

The need to stop terrorists from boarding public transit with weapons, including bombs, has resulted in TSA taking the bold step of re-visiting the notion of profiling of airline passengers despite earlier warnings that profiling is based on stereotyping and stereotyping is bad. Neither of the preceding is an absolute truth. There are many beneficial outcomes from profiling in law enforcement and elsewhere just as there are many positive stereotypes when grouping people, places and things. The problem with both profiling and stereotyping is that they are often used too widely and are usually shallow in their basis. When either is used by professionals who are well-trained and supervised they are welcomed in a society that needs to make generalizations about apples, automobiles and people with the knowledge that each under a given set of circumstances is likely to prove to be the opposite of what is predicted in general. Reliable profiling is based on a solid equation of givens about group patterns of conduct taken from broad generalizations and then refined by human behavior to stimuli, often in the form of questioning, by highly skilled and well trained investigators.

A profiling program designed to identify criminals, including terrorists, should be built on a scientific foundation that recognizes the role of culturally based prejudice and discrimination used in stereotyping racial, ethnic and religious groups as generalizations that are often not correct especially when used in a negative sense. On the other hand, we cannot assume that those generalizations are never right. Profilers cannot avoid screening any ethnic, racial, or religious group because they are often unfairly stereotyped as a result of generalizations; profilers need to select their targets because they positively conform to deeper characteristics recognized as indicia of criminal patterns and then test those characteristics with skilled questioning under careful observation for behaviors associated with guilt, fear or deception.

That not every screener will make a good profiler regardless of the training is suggested admittedly by generalization based on education, experience and performance. Once again, I suggest that we look to the training, discipline and experience found among our returning war veterans, our thousands of retired law enforcement officers and others already trained and experienced to know that assumptions are not always facts and that human behavior under questioning is the best indicator of the a suspects intentions.

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