Sippy Cup Spill Sparks Tiff at National Airport

By Del Quentin Wilber and Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 16, 2007

Federal security officials took the unusual step yesterday of posting an incident report and security camera footage on their Web site to counter allegations that screeners and police officers at Reagan National Airport mistreated a mother and her toddler this week. At issue is whether Monica Emmerson, a former Secret Service officer and District resident, was improperly detained when she spilled water out of her child's sippy cup.

The story emerged Thursday morning and spread quickly on the Internet yesterday, as bloggers expressed outrage at the alleged treatment of the woman. The first blogger to pick up Emmerson's tale was Bill Adler, a District author who said he usually blogs only about issues in his Cleveland Park neighborhood. He was alerted to the airport saga by his wife, who spotted a note Emmerson wrote on a local e-mail mass mailing for parents (

Adler said he thought the story was interesting, so he contacted Emmerson and interviewed her.

Cobbling together the interviews and her e-mail missive, Adler wrote on his blog that "nothing I've read about or experienced comes close to what Monica Emmerson experienced while at Reagan National Airport."

He then related Emmerson's account: As she was going through security, a screener with the Transportation Security Administration asked if there was water in her 19-month-old son's sippy cup. For nearly a year, TSA has banned most fluids and gels from carry-on luggage because it is concerned about liquid explosives.

The screener then seized the cup, Adler related, causing Emmerson's son to wail. Emmerson was told that if she wanted to keep the cup, she should leave the security checkpoint, dump out the water and return.

As she turned to leave, Emmerson "accidentally spilled" the water, she and Adler wrote.

Emmerson reported that she was then threatened with arrest and ordered to clean up the water on the floor. She said that she was detained by seven police officers and screeners. "I was being held against my will," she wrote.

She was eventually allowed back through security without being arrested or charged. She missed her flight, she said, but eventually got on another one.

Emmerson declined to comment last night but said that Adler's story was "accurate."

Such stories of poor treatment at the hands of TSA screeners and police usually end there, with little public notice or outcry. But TSA officials, after being contacted by a Post reporter about the incident, took the unusual step of responding to the online criticism. They posted video clips taken by a security camera, along with an incident report that they believe rebuts Emmerson's allegations, on a portion of the TSA Web site called MythBusters.

TSA officials said they felt obligated to respond because their screeners were not at fault. "As this incident illustrates, these officers display professionalism and concern for all passengers," TSA officials wrote in a statement.

The video is clear on some points but not on others. Emmerson is seen being escorted out of the security checkpoint area by a screener. It then appears that she intentionally dumps water out of the sippy cup onto the floor and tries to slip back through security without going through the screening process, drawing the attention of a police officer.

She talks to the officer as she digs around in her son's stroller, apparently for her identification. The officer's supervisor arrives, and then Emmerson's fiance appears. Within a few minutes, Emmerson is on her hands and knees, drying up the puddle with a handful of paper towels. A TSA screener nearby makes sure nobody slips on the water and takes Emmerson's wet paper towels.

In the incident report, a TSA officer wrote that before Emmerson was escorted out of the checkpoint area, she flashed her "Secret Service badge and credentials and said she should be exempt from all this and this was a stupid policy."

Secret Service officials declined comment on Emmerson's employment status.

Tara Hamilton, an airport spokeswoman, said the first officer on the scene acted appropriately and responded only because she thought Emmerson was trying to cut back through security after dumping the water.

Adler, who watched the video yesterday afternoon, said he wasn't sure it proved anything.

"I get the impression that some of what she has said and wrote may not be completely what happened," Adler said. "She may have gotten some of the details wrong. . . . But I think the only person who can narrate this is Monica."

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