Friday, February 15, 2008

The TSA, Our Officers, The Public and Theft

As we know and you have reported on this very blog, theft in our nations' airports is a big problem. It's an issue that has plagued the industry for decades, but now, as the relatively new kid on the block and the agency charged with opening more than 1 million checked bags every day, the finger has been pointed directly at our workforce.

And in some cases, rightfully so... Unfortunately, TSA has experienced its problems with theft. To date, we have terminated and sought prosecution for about 200 of our employees who have been accused of stealing, either from checked bags, passengers’ carry-ons or fellow employees. While 200 out of more than 110,000 employees is a minuscule percentage (less than one half of one percent) over the short life of the agency, one theft is too many when you are in the position of public trust as we are. We do not tolerate, condone, cover up or minimize theft by our officers by any stretch of the imagination and in most cases, it is fellow employees uncovering the theft and the organization pushing hard for prosecution of those that would abuse their authority.

From our perspective, we don't want thieves in our workforce and will do all we can to root them out. We rely on security cameras, two to three person integrity - with managers present, reports of theft by fellow employees and sting operations conducted unilaterally or with law enforcement partners at our nation's airports.

For instance, you may have read a news article from the Chicago Tribune about an officer stealing gift cards from baggage at O’Hare. What you didn’t read in that article is that TSA’s Office of Inspection (our version of internal affairs) actually ran down the stolen gift cards at Target and Best Buy, obtained surveillance video of the thieves redeeming the gift cards and worked with the Chicago PD to make sure they did not get away with this.

A few other examples include: TSA working with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department during a sting operation last summer which netted two airline contractors who stole the weapons of two service members on their way to the Middle East; a TSA-led investigation conducted in New Orleans about three years ago had similar success in netting a small group of thieves working for us; and two years ago, a TSA baggage screener at LAX attempted to steal a high-priced watch from Paris Hilton, then had second thoughts and put it back. In that case, a fellow employee reported the incident and the TSA convinced the city attorney of Los Angeles to prosecute. All of these TSA employees were terminated immediately.

Additionally, to prevent theft, our employees are prohibited from taking backpacks, lunchboxes or any other personal carrying item into baggage screening operation areas. Some airports time and date stamp bag screening cards and today more than half of all travelers use airports that have “in-line” baggage systems. These systems greatly limit the personal handling of bags by our officers and enable them to screen these bags remotely. In short, we have implemented many tools to protect your belongings and ensure your safety.

The question will certainly arise... don't you do background checks on your employees? The answer: YES! The problem with background checks is they check the background, they don't predict the future.

Now many of you have referenced television reports that talk about claims and claim data that seem to implicate our workforce in wide-spread thievery. A Seattle television station aired the original story that was based on data they had requested through the Freedom of Information Act. The data, several hundred pages, listed claims that had been submitted by passengers from airports around the country. In the data, there were no categories for theft or disposition because that information was not requested. The facts, that went unreported and un-requested, were that the majority of those claims were denied or canceled because they lacked sufficient grounds for us to use your tax payer dollars to reimburse passengers.

Now, after the five or ten minutes of time that we have your bag...what happens to it? Well, we estimate that between five and eight airline employees touch that same bag, many times outside of the view of passengers, sometimes in the cargo hold of aircraft.

So what can you do if you feel you have been ripped off? First and foremost, file a police report. Most airports have law enforcement in the terminals, many airports could have a police officers respond in minutes. Second, file a claim with both TSA and the airline. We analyze this data and if we see a trend at a particular airport, we are in a better position to investigate further. Third, check to make sure you have all of your belongings prior to departing the checkpoint area. Fourth, check with lost and found. Everyday we itemize, catalog and store thousands of items that passengers may think were stolen, but in fact are waiting to be claimed. Our lost and found link on our web site can be found by clicking here, Fifth, when traveling through the security checkpoint, to prevent another passenger stealing from you, put your phone or watch or wallet in your briefcase, purse or carry-on bag. That way it all stays together and won't fall out of one of those bowls we have for screening or make for easy pickings from a thief.

Also, I can't tell you how many times I have heard of passengers putting expensive jewelry or even wads of cash in their checked bags! Keep it with you.

TSA Evolution Blog Team

02.15.08, 2:10p.m.
Christopher said:

Couldn't agree more with anonymous at 12:31, "the screeners violated the public trust. That is completely unacceptable for a government employee at any level." That's what the post is all about. One case of officer theft is one too many and we're doing our level best to find, fire and aid in the prosectution of any officer that is stealing. Beyond the obvious lack of honesty and abuse of the public trust that has been mentioned, officers stealing sully the reputation of the great majority of the workforce and make their jobs much more difficult.

I'm not familiar with what a public affairs "gonk" is but I'm sure it's not a term of endearment. I was not trying to be intentionally vague when I wrote about 200. Let's agree to about 271, okay?

If you reply with a link to the Austin article, I'll track it down and get some facts and update this post later today. I've been with TSA three years and have never heard us characterize any theft as "minor" and am interested in this.

02.15.08, 3:10p.m.
Christopher said:

Great comments and questions about the locks. Hopefully this will clear up a couple issues. First, TSA is not cutting TSA recognized locks off your baggage. We have the keys and have no need to do this. In fact, it would take longer to grab bolt cutters (which we do keep for non-TSA recognized locks) and cut the lock off, pick up the pieces and replace the bolt cutters than it does to use the master keys we have.

The reality of the airport is that there are literally miles of belts with twists and turns everywhere. Belts the airlines use to get your luggage from the ticket counter to us, belts we use to move the bags through the mini-van sized explosive detection machines, belts to get the bags back to the airlines and to the areas where bags are collected for specific flights and of course belts to move the bags into the underside of the aircraft. This doesn't even include the belts at the destination airport that get bags from the plane to the carousel. The point about all these belts is that twists and turns in the belt system are notorious pinch points for bags and particularly locks. Go to any airport in America and the floor of these areas will have broken locks on them. Yes it's a design issue and it is being addressed in some of our more modern airports and systems but the plain truth about these locks is that more often than not, it's a belt that broke your lock, not a person.

As some have mentioned, these locks aren't built to withstand a serious pounding and can be broken, pulled apart, picked or otherwise disabled. These locks provide a modest amount of protection from opportunistic thieves, they will not stop someone bent on getting into a bag just like a lock on your front door would not prevent a burglar from breaking your window.

TSA Evolution Blog Team