Passengers wait to clear security next to a TSA PreCheck lane at Miami International Airport in 2011. The Transportation Security Administration plans to fire 25 employees and suspend 19 others who failed to follow baggage screening procedures at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, the agency announced Friday. (Getty Images)
The Transportation Security Administration has a huge image problem.
Hundreds of thefts of electronics from passengers. Objectionable pat-downs of grammar school-age kids, people with disabilities and senior citizens. Cheating on proficiency exams. And more.
With barely half the country’s population viewing TSA screeners favorably — and many lawmakers throwing barbs at the agency as well — the agency is hoping more oversight, a little schooling and less invasive screening methods will help.
The agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which reviews reports of misconduct, is creating a database to track all disciplinary actions throughout the agency to promote consistency and accountability, James Duncan, TSA assistant administrator for professional responsibility, told the House subcommittee on oversight, investigations and management earlier this year.
The office “ensures that the TSA workforce is treated fairly by removing people who do not meet the high standards of integrity that our mission requires,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email.
As the agency works to hold employees engaged in misconduct more accountable, it is also trying to limit the use of pat-downs for frequent travelers and make the process less disruptive for passengers with special needs.
TSA’s Pre-Check program, which rolled out in October 2011, allows travelers identified by airlines and members of Customs and Border Protection’s “Trusted Traveler” programs to use expedited screening lines, where they skip some of the steps the average traveler endures, such as taking off shoes, jackets and belts.
The agency announced last month that 26 airports offer the program, and the agency is pushing to have Pre-Check offered in 35 airports by the end of the year.
The agency also opened a hotline for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions, called “TSA Cares,” in December to answer questions about screening policies and procedures.
In addition, TSA is promoting professionalism among its employees through free community college courses that help officers understand the Department of Homeland Security’s operations and how TSA fits into the larger picture.
Participants gain pride and confidence in the work they do, said an official who oversees the agency’s career programs. “With the level of confidence that they feel because they know more, they feel more confident about engaging with the traveling public,” she said.
A Gallup poll conducted in early July shows that 54 percent of Americans think TSA is doing either an excellent or a good job of handling security screening at airports.
A big problem for TSA is that when employees do wrong, it attracts wide attention.
In one example, numerous media reported how TSA agents “aggressively” patted down a 7-year-old Long Island girl with cerebral palsy in April.
TSA officials said earlier this year that they are reviewing TSA’s “one-size-fits-all” screening policies.
And two weeks ago, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/tsa-agent-found-abc-ipad-brian-ross-blotter-17336428">ABC News reported that 381 TSA agents have been fired for stealing iPads and other items from passengers since TSA was created a decade ago.
ABC News also conducted its own sting operation, leaving an iPad at a TSA security checkpoint. ABC tracked the iPad, which contained GPS tracking software, to the Florida home of a TSA agent and confronted the agent with the accusation that he stole it. That agent was later fired for the theft.
ABC News interviewed Pythias Brown, a former TSA agent from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, who admitted to stealing as much as $800,000 worth of items from luggage and security checkpoints over four years. Brown served three years in jail for those thefts and said such thefts by TSA agents were “very commonplace.”
In response to the ABC News report, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., last week called on TSA Administrator John Pistole to conduct regular sting operations and random screenings of TSA screeners in an effort to catch thieves and root out the problem.
As with past reports of misconduct, TSA issued a statement after ABC News report saying the agency “holds its employees to the highest ethical standards. TSA has zero tolerance for misconduct in the workplace and takes immediate action when allegations are substantiated.”
TSA can immediately remove officers whose misconduct involves theft, illegal drug and on-duty alcohol use, and intentional security breaches.
Incidents like these have sparked criticisms from Republican lawmakers.
In February, Congress passed a Federal Aviation Administration authorization act that allows airports to privatize their security operations if contractors can do the job as well as or better than federal screeners without affecting costs.
“Transitioning to private security operations under federal standards and supervision will get TSA out of the HR business and back into the security business,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chief sponsor of that measure, in a statement in June, when TSA approved Orlando-Sanford International Airport’s request to privatize.
TSA this year has approved privatization at six airports: Bozeman Yellowstone, West Yellowstone, Glacier Park International and Bert Mooney in Montana; Orlando-Sanford in Florida; and Sacramento International. The agency is in the process of selecting contractors for those airports, a spokesman said.