The Transportation Security Administration said Thursday that it is investigating allegations that screeners at Honolulu Airport have targeted Mexican travelers for extra screening.
The allegations "resulted in launching an immediate and thorough investigation of the behavior detection program at HNL," the TSA said in a statement, referring to Honolulu’s airport code. "Pending the completion of the investigation, TSA also provided HNL behavior detection officers refresher training to ensure the program is focused solely on identifying suspicious behaviors."
The statement was in response to a recent letter from Rep. Bennie Thompson, a ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security. His Nov. 22 letter cited a report by KITV, in which two TSA employees alleged that officers known as "Mexicutioners" targeted Mexican passengers in an attempt to appear productive to supervisors.
Thompson, D-Miss., said he wants a suspension of a program known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT, which involves officers trained in detecting behavior, such as facial expressions, of those who intend to do harm.
"TSA’s behavior detection program in no way encourages or tolerates profiling," the agency’s statement said. "Profiling is not an effective form of security and our security officers are trained to treat every passenger with dignity and respect."
Thompson gave the TSA until Dec. 16 to provide information including the agency’s internal report on Honolulu’s SPOT program. Among the information he requested are specific steps taken to address racial profiling allegations at the airport and a list of countries of origin for each foreign national arrested as a result of a referral from TSA behavior detection officers in Honolulu.
The TSA said it will respond directly to the congressman.
Honolulu Airport is where dozens of employees were fired or suspended this year after an investigation found workers did not screen checked bags for explosives. It was the single largest personnel action for misconduct in the TSA’s history.
The agency began an investigation at the end of 2010 after two Honolulu employees told officials that thousands of bags weren’t checked properly or screened for traces of explosives. The probe, which included interviews with more than 100 employees, determined that some checked bags during one shift at the airport were not properly screened.
Thompson said the Honolulu allegations, along with media accounts in June of behavior detection officers at Newark Liberty International Airport targeting minority passengers, raise concerns about the "scientific validity" of the program.
Behavior detection officers at Newark were retrained amid allegations they routinely targeted Mexican or Dominican passengers.
"These incidents and the failure of both training and supervision to prevent the practice of racial profiling are clear indications that more research, evaluation and testing must be completed before behavior detection can be successfully integrated at aviation security checkpoints," he wrote.
On Thursday a group of 38 civil rights organizations led by the Sikh Coalition called for an independent audit of the TSA to determine whether the agency engages in racial profiling.
Their letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the groups, which include the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union, are "concerned that the latest reports from Hawaii and New Jersey represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and that TSA officers are engaged in a wider pattern or practice of profiling racial and religious minorities instead of focusing on actual criminal behavior."