Congressman Issa vs. rogue airport security officers

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; B03

Even as we appreciate the need for airport screening, many of us have had our frustrations after waiting in a long line to pass through security before getting on with a trip. We take off our coats and our shoes and our belts, only to have the metal detector oink at us because of the foil around our breath mints.

The transportation security officers are just doing their duty to protect us, we understand that. But on occasion, some of them apparently go too far.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, complained that "innocent travelers" have been subjected "to baseless harassment, intimidation, and situations designed to instill fear and cause public humiliation."

The letter, sent Tuesday to Secretary Janet Napolitano, said some cases involved "childish practical jokes" by officers or mistreatment of disabled passengers. Each instance, he said, "amounts to an abuse of power and a breach of public trust."

He noted public apologies by the Transportation Security Administration but said that "the persistent misbehavior indicates that the Homeland Security Department is unwilling or unable to rein in its agents."

TSA responded that it "has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and acts swiftly when proper protocols are not followed. The inappropriate actions of a few individuals in no way reflect on the outstanding work of the more than 50,000 Transportation Security Officers who work tirelessly to keep our skies safe."

Issa cited a March incident where officers at Philadelphia International Airport required 4-year-old Ryan Thomas to remove his leg braces before going through a metal detector. The officers could have escorted the child and his parents to a secure area, where the braces could have been swabbed for traces of explosive material, "as required by Department procedure," but they didn't, according to Issa.

"By any measure, the agents' behavior was offensive and unbecoming for any official entrusted with public safety," Issa wrote.

He cited another example in Philadelphia in January where an officer put white powder in a passenger's carry-on luggage as a joke.

Certainly examples like those in Issa's letter represent a small portion of the otherwise overwhelmingly professional behavior demonstrated by transportation security officers. Nonetheless, Issa made a good point when he told Napolitano, "the Department must act swiftly to repair this breach of public trust." He asked her to "hold the appropriate individuals responsible for their misconduct."

But if the problem is a systemic one -- and it's not clear from Issa's letter that it is -- then holding individuals responsible may not be enough. TSA may need to ensure that its hiring process weeds out people who shouldn't be TSOs and that training should make it clear what behavior will not be tolerated.

Insensitive and inappropriate actions by just a few officers can besmirch the vast majority who serve the public well. TSA has enough problems, already. It doesn't need rogue officers making matters worse.

The other three R's

When Uncle Sam decides to spend a few extra dollars to recruit and retain workers, he does so with a strategic eye. What he sees is a need to hire and keep employees in health-related areas, without spending too much in the process.

The Office of Personnel Management advised Congress in a report last month, "Agencies were by far most likely to use retention incentives to retain employees in health-care occupations."

In fact, of the top 20 jobs where retention bonuses were used in 2008, 11 were health-related. For example, 1,511 nurses were paid $10.2 million in bonuses, for an average payment of more than $6,730. Medical officers received more than twice as much: $16 million was split among 1,060 employees, leaving each with more than $15,000 on average.

The need for medical officers was also demonstrated by the average recruitment bonus of more than $24,000, paid to 337 people in that category. The $8.1 million paid to lure them to Sam's workplace was more than he paid for any other category, according to the report, "Recruitment, Relocation and Retention Incentives Calendar Year 2008."

But OPM is getting a bit more cautious about how much the government spends on incentives.

In a February memo to top federal personnel officials, OPM Director John Berry said he is "concerned about the continued growth in 3Rs [recruitment, relocation and retention] payments, given recent labor market conditions. The 3Rs report to Congress for calendar year 2008 shows that 47 agencies paid 39,512 3Rs payments, worth more than $284 million. Between 2007 and 2008, the total number of incentives paid increased by more than 21 percent and the total incentive cost increased by more than 37 percent."

The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs were the top users of the incentive program in 2008, with Defense giving 19,393 incentives, totaling $135.8 million, for an average amount of $7,003, according to the report. VA paid 9,388 incentives, worth $53.7 million. Its average amount was $5,717.

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this column.

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