Profiling Passengers by Actions, Not Ethnicity

Security teams at airports are taught to watch passenger mood, not skin color.

MIAMI, Jan. 8, 2010— -- 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.

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.

Lessons in Spotting Suspicious Passengers Payoff

By the end of that line of questioning, Lopez is confident a possible suspect's intentions would become clear. One of his students got to practice the lesson earlier this week.

According to the airport's head of security, Lauren Stover, a man attempted to purchase a one-way ticket with cash. "He only had one form of identification, and was acting oddly at the ticket counter." Stover says the quick thinking ticket agent alerted police and the man, who was mentally unstable, was arrested.

"The technology we have today may change tomorrow, so behavior pattern recognition is right on the money and will never grow obsolete," says Stover.

She's been pleased by what she calls the program's success and its by-products. Stover says crime is down at the airport by as much as 30 percent, because criminals have been deterred by the measures adopted.

The hour-long seminar has impressed most of the students. A cigar-chomping pilot and the mechanic talked about the "tells" that would make a suspect conspicuous. In the back of the room, however, the carpet cleaner was snoozing.

Downstairs in the terminal some passengers were comforted to know janitors and police alike were trained in behavior recognition techniques.

Others were disturbed by it. A man who called himself Jorg, who'd just arrived from Frankfurt with his wife, scoffed, "What if people are just nervous. They could be nervous because they are missing their flight, as we did now. There are a lot of reasons to be nervous now," and his wife chimed in, "or freak out."