Profiling Passengers by Actions, Not Ethnicity

Miami Dade Police Officer Gene Lopez opens each PowerPoint session the same way: showing images of a bus exploding.

For a second he walks through the slow motion shot, the projected fireball blossoming in reds and yellows on his chest.

As the bus' roof hurtles slowly over the crown of his balding head, Lopez, one of two officers who train 35,000 airport employees in behavior pattern recognition techniques, tells his students, "Since our bodies are 75 percent water, when that shockwave hits our body it will turn our internal organs into a gelatin or a mush."

All rustling in the class stops. And so another "Advanced Security Awareness" session begins.

Video of President Barack Obama releasing the security review.
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The "students" in this class are all badged employees at Miami International Airport, a mechanic, a carpet cleaner, a baggage handler, a pilot, among others.

Behavior Recognition Techniques Stress Airport Passenger Mood

They are here just above the bustling American Airlines concourse to learn how terrorists act, what might happen if they, in fact, get a chance to act. But chiefly, this group – thinned out significantly today by frigid (for Florida) weather – is here to learn how to detect them.

Lopez says suspected bombers "are going to act differently because their stress level is going to be higher than the normal people you'd expect to see in an airport." They might wear heavy clothing on a summer's day, have a million-mile stare, or seem in a daze or incoherent.

Airports across the country deploy behavior recognition teams that chat with suspicious passengers to ascertain their intentions – folks wearing bulky clothes, people who are sweating, glancing around furtively, staring at security officials etc.. – but Miami International Airport is the only one in the country endeavoring to train all of its staff, not just the passenger screeners.

Rafi Ron, who had headed security at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport before being hired by Boston's Logan Airport in the weeks after 9/11, designed the program, and more intense programs geared toward security personnel at airports in San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Houston and others. He says, "The only common denominator of a terrorist attack, is that they are carried out by people."

Profiling Airline Passengers by Actions, Not Ethnicity

Ron urges a refocusing of this country's security approach, "from looking for the bad items, to looking for the bad guys." He allows that better scanners might have prevented suspected terrorists like Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab from boarding a U.S.-bound get plane, but argues that technology has actually hindered airport security.

"Terrorists" he reminds, "like the 9/11 attackers, and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and the liquid bombers, all brought onto the plane items that were essentially legal at the time. Terrorists always change tactics."

He argues against ethnic or racial profiling, citing Ben Gurion Aiport's experience of being attacked by Arab, German, and Japanese assailants over the past few decades.

Back in class, Lopez's students have by now watched several bombings. What they learn is basic common sense, he notes. If they suspect someone, they are instructed to casually approach and courteously ask a passenger how he is, if he requires any assistance and then ultimately what he's up to or where he's going.

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