Originally Posted by NJ.COM
NEWARK — A special unit of airport screeners, charged with detecting suspicious behavior, engaged in racial profiling so frequently at Newark Liberty International Airport that their resentful colleagues called them "Mexican hunters," according to an internal federal report. Officially known as behavior detection officers, or BDOs, the screeners were supposed to focus on nervous, erratic or evasive gestures or speech and other indicators to single out passengers for extra scrutiny, but instead they concentrated on whether Mexican or Dominican passengers had proper visas or passport stamps, the report said — all at the direction of their managers. If not, those passengers would be subjected to bag searches, pat downs, questioning and referrals to immigration with bogus behaviors invented by the screeners to cover up the real reason the passengers were singled out.
"It became a joke in the unit, these individuals were called the great Mexican hunters," Newark BDO Paul Animone told investigators, according the report. "I did not agree or did not go along with these types of referrals, but if I was teamed up with one of these BDOs, I would go along with the referral and perform the bag check. When I disagreed with these referrals and brought it to the attention of the BDO managers, I was told by the BDO managers that I was not a team player."
Known as the "Boston Report" because it was compiled by a pair of TSA inquiry officers brought in from Boston Logan International Airport, the document is dated Jan. 25, 2010, and addressed to Newark’s federal security director at the time, Barbara Bonn Powell. Copies of the Boston report and several related TSA documents were obtained by The Star-Ledger. One of the managers accused in the report denied, in an interview with The Star-Ledger, that racial profiling went on, while another manager was quoted as denying it in TSA documents. While the report was based largely on statements from several BDOs who said that they were directed to use racial profiling, and had seen their colleagues doing just that, other BDOs were quoted saying they had never witnessed the practice nor been told to use it.
The report said Mexican and Dominican passengers were singled out for scrutiny of their travel documents as an easy way to drive up the number of referrals by Newark’s BDO unit so that it would appear productive, even though the officers’ real job was to look for behavior that might indicate a security threat. A TSA spokeswoman said the agency opposes racial profiling, and that the situation in Newark had been addressed. "TSA does not profile passengers on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion," TSA spokesman Lisa Farbstein said. "The SPOT Program (Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique) was specifically designed to use behavioral criteria indicative of an individual possibly engaged in criminal and/or terrorist activity — race, ethnicity or religion are not considered."
In a statement, the TSA acknowledged that its policies were "overstepped," but insisted that, "eighteen months ago, TSA took immediate remedial action and retrained the entire behavior detection workforce at Newark." Though the Boston report does not say how many BDOs in Newark were racially profiling passengers, it leaves no doubt that the practice was widespread, lasting from early 2008 to late 2009, when investigators began looking into the issue. Much — but not all — of the activity took place in Terminal B, for international flights. The report’s findings were based on interviews with BDO officers who said they were aware of the practice by several officers, and singled out their managers as the instigators.
FOCUS ON NUMBERS
The report found that managers’ emphasis on referrals created a perception among BDOs that there was a quota system in place, and that promotions depended on their producing high numbers. The report said one of the managers, George Schultz, instructed officers to manipulate a point system used to assess whether a passenger’s behavior merits referral to law enforcement officers, or LEOs. The report said the practice was so widespread that transportation security officers, or TSOs, and supervisory TSOs, who are not involved in behavior detection, eventually confronted behavior detection managers Robert Hakius and Joseog Yurechko about it. "Schultz was basically telling all of us to go look for illegal aliens and make up behaviors to equal six points, which would result in a LEO call," BDO William Tappen stated for the report. "Many managers and STSOs and TSOs questioned Hakius and Yurechko about BDOs constantly pulling Mexicans and other South American male passengers because even to them it was that obvious the BDO unit was profiling. We were being called Mexican Hunters by our peers and coworkers in the airport."
Word of racial profiling at Newark Liberty follows a series of embarrassing incidents and security breaches at the airport, capped by a scathing analysis of the local security operation that cited dismally low morale, and blamed understaffing, lack of training and faulty leadership for the staff’s poor performance. Powell was replaced in April by Donald Drummer, a former deputy security director at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Powell herself was mentioned in reference to the perception among BDOs that they were expected to meet quotas for referring passengers to law enforcement officers. The report found that, while there was no quota system officially in place, managers had fueled the perception by emphasizing numbers.
"Mr. Chevere would say things like, ‘We need activity or Barbara Powell will say we are not an important layer of security,’ " Master BDO Tiarah Wallace was quoted as saying, referring to behavior detection manager Luis Chevere. Chevere denies the accusations. He was the only one of the four managers cited in the report to be disciplined by the TSA. The 57-year-old retired New York City police officer was demoted to the entry level rank of TSO in a Sept. 15, 2010, decision by Newark’s deputy federal security director at the time, Russell McCaffery,
In the decision, McCaffery wrote: "Contrary to BDO training and TSA policy, on numerous dates starting in early 2008 through November 2009, you instructed Behavior Detection Officers under your supervision to select passengers for behavior detection referrals based on their appearance or ethnicity."
A MANAGER'S DEFENSE
Chevere has appealed the demotion before the federal Merit Systems Protection Board in Manhattan. In an interview, he told The Star-Ledger that he was made a scapegoat by Powell, noting she took no action against the three other managers. Schultz, whom Chevere identified as the airport’s lead behavior detection manager, retired from the TSA last year. The other two, Hakius and Yurechko, are still in their jobs. "It singled me out and it ignored everybody else, but that was Barbara Powell, that was her doing," said Chevere, whose pay was cut in half. "Of course it’s not fair, and of course it’s nothing that we’ve ever asked our BDOs to do." Chevere, who grew up in Puerto Rico, said he is the one being profiled — singled out because he is Hispanic, possessing a French name but Spanish blood. "I never, never had any disciplinary issues until I ran into Barbara Powell," he insisted. Asked whether he or anyone else in Newark engaged in racial profiling, he said: "Absolutely not."
Powell, now a senior advisor in the TSA’s Office of Human Capital in Arlington, Va., was not available for comment, the agency said. In his decision to demote Chevere rather than fire him, McCaffery acknowledged Chevere’s "otherwise acceptable performance record," and the fact that he had, "no prior discipline" in his record. Reached by phone, Hakius declined to comment. But he was quoted in a TSA document denying any involvement in racial profiling. "I am not aware of anyone doing this," Hakius stated in a February 2010 report by Newark’s deputy assistant security director, Patrick Boyle, following up on the Boston report. Schultz and Yurechko could not be reached.