TOPEKA — Kansas legislators think it’s time to tone down the drama of what one lawmaker calls the “security theater” of airport screening.
Rep. Brett Hildabrand, R-Merriam, wants to stop what he sees as over-the-top searches at the airport gate that distress innocent passengers by acting as if even the most unlikely pose a threat to air safety.
“Air travelers are subjected to aggressive, humiliating pat-downs, many of which would land the average stranger off the street in jail,” Hildabrand said.
“But because the federal government has given someone a blue uniform and a badge, we are told that person has authority over our bodies and we must endure.”
Along with 20 other House Republicans, he’s pushing a bill that would make it illegal for Transportation Security Administration screeners to touch an airline passenger’s private parts as they conduct a pat-down. It also would bar TSA officers from removing a child under the age of 18 from the control of a parent or guardian.
Between 100 and 110 TSA officers are stationed at seven Kansas airports, including Wichita, Dodge City, Manhattan, Great Bend and Hays.
The Kansas bill echoes a trend in politically conservative states where lawmakers – incensed by reports of toddlers, the elderly or the infirm handled as if they were potential bombers – are standing up to what they contend are unconstitutional acts imposed by the federal government. Several states, including Texas, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Alaska, have gone after the TSA in recent years.
Whether the state would actually have jurisdiction over the behavior of airport security screeners working for a federal agency is in dispute. In a blog post, the TSA – which would not comment directly on the Kansas legislation – said the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution bars states from regulating the federal government.
Some experts agree.
“I don’t see it being implemented,” said Glenn Winn, an aviation security expert at the University of Southern California.
Some Kansas legislators think the bill is out of bounds for the state.
“I think it’s a waste of our time,” said Rep. Louis Ruiz, D-Kansas City.
“We have law enforcement officers at every level that may abuse their powers. Are we going to make laws for all of them, too?”
The Kansas bill is born out of an incident at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport last year in which a woman complained that screeners treated her 4-year-old daughter like a terrorist.
Michelle Brademeyer said security officers overreacted when they demanded her daughter undergo a pat-down after going through security without tripping the alarm. After initially clearing security, the girl ran to hug her grandmother, who had set off the alarm and was waiting for a pat-down.
A security officer then yelled at the girl, who Brademeyer said was horrified and in tears. The preschooler’s mother wasn’t allowed to get close to comfort the child, she said.
The incident spread widely on the Internet. TSA said its officers followed proper procedure and conducted a “modified” pat-down of the child.
The TSA says examples of overly aggressive searches don’t represent the vast majority of passengers’ experiences. The agency estimates that only 3 percent of all airline passengers are patted down.
Further, between November 2010 and March 2011, the TSA screened nearly 252 million people and received 898 complaints from witnesses or passengers.
The data about complaints against TSA security isn’t easily obtained. For instance, it took the Kansas City Star about a year to get five months’ worth of complaints lodged against screeners at Kansas City International Airport. The documents showed that 30 complaints were filed against security officers at KCI for the first five months of 2011.
Many of the complaints accused screeners of acting rudely or bullying passengers. Some complained about screeners rummaging through their carry-on luggage. There were a few passengers who reported feeling personally violated by the security officers, however.
The TSA contends that pat-downs – used by law enforcement worldwide – are effective at keeping dangerous items off planes that could cause a catastrophe. It was box cutters, after all, that terrorists used to hijack airliners on Sept. 11, 2001.
Illusion of security
Some Kansas lawmakers argue that the TSA creates an illusion of security, saying that any Internet search reveals instances of passengers smuggling contraband onto planes.
“The theater they put us through to get on a plane is absolutely ridiculous,” said Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, one of the bill’s sponsors.
But Winn, the aviation security expert, said the screening and frisking must be doing some good because no one has brought down a plane since 9/11.
“I think we’ve been very blessed,” he said. “The processes in place are working.”
The Kansas bill to govern TSA screeners was heard by a legislative committee this week. Seven members of the 23-person panel are sponsors of the bill.
The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Arlen Siegfreid of Olathe, said the bill needs to be more narrowly tailored to apply only to the TSA, not to other areas of law enforcement.
Siegfreid said it appears that TSA officers don’t use the same discretion that’s available to other law enforcement officers.
“I understand that this is a federally controlled thing, but at some point in time the citizens have the right to stand up and say this is wrong,” he said. “That’s what I want this bill to say about the TSA and not every other law enforcement agency.”