Monday, February 9, 2009

Why We Do What We Do: Screening People in Wheelchairs

On February 4 at Los Angeles International Airport (better known as LAX), TSA officers found two 6x6x2 packages taped to the abdomen of a passenger.

The passenger arrived at the checkpoint in a wheelchair and was given the option of walking through the metal detector or being patted down in his wheelchair. He chose to walk through the metal detector. Because he was wearing bulky clothing, he also received additional screening - in this case a pat down.

That's when an officer found the two packages. The packages were tested and initial results were positive for explosive content. A TSA Bomb Appraisal Officer eventually cleared the packages through additional tests at the checkpoint and LAX police determined that the packages contained cocaine. The passenger was arrested, and federal charges are pending.

Now we know what some of you are thinking - TSA’s mission is not to find drugs, and that’s true. But finding drugs isn’t the success story here – the success story is that the officers found suspicious items intentionally concealed on a person’s body and that person was someone who would appear to pose no threat. We know that people who want to sneak something through a checkpoint – like improvised explosives devices and their components – often look to the techniques of drug and money smugglers and other criminals. In this case, it was drugs (which are admittedly not a threat to a plane), but when an officer finds these kinds of items, they don’t know what the contents are until the package is tested.

And because it’s a hot topic, it bears repeating that because transportation security officers are federal officers, if they find drugs, they must report it to law enforcement. Often on the blog we get questions like: “how is granny a threat?,” “what can a person in a wheelchair do on a plane,” etc. To us, this story is about the importance of screening everyone, and not giving anyone an exemption that a terrorist could use to their advantage.

Case in point: in 2005 in Colombia, a man in a wheelchair was allowed to bypass the metal detectors to board his flight. He and his son then tried to hijack the plane with two hand grenades they got through security. According to the media reporting:

“Duque said the older hijacker boarded the plane in a wheelchair. It may have helped him smuggle the grenades aboard. The wheelchair was too large to pass through an airport metal detector, and the man was not patted down by security agents, Luis Octavio Rojas, director of the Florencia airport, told The Associated Press.

“But they did give him and the chair a visual inspection,” Rojas added.”
- Lynn
EoS Blog Team