Stop dressing police and TSA like storm troopers


This past week in Ferguson, Missouri, next to St. Louis, violence has erupted after an unarmed person of color was shot and killed by a policeman. The ensuing riots and uproar have fixated the nation on a problem that has been brewing for years.

It is brewing near your communities — the connection between the police and the people they serve is fraying. The closest that most Americans come to feeling the oppression of police is when they pass through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints at airports. No one enjoys the feeling.

TSA is, frankly speaking, a boogieman. Checkpoints, intimidating screeners, strip-search machines and pat-downs with no probable cause are dreaded.

Newspaper editors report vitriolic reactions to stories about TSA from the public.
(from my testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, Washington, DC, November 29, 2012)

I had an opportunity to testify before the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in November 2012 about TSA and its effect on the traveling public. Back then, I suggested, to chuckles from committee members and the hearing audience, that TSA security inspectors be dressed in pastel colored polo shirts, rather than in the storm trooper outfits in which they parade through airports today.

TU_Ad_350-350After all, TSA inspectors are not law enforcement agents. They are simply baggage inspectors. TSA does not have the ability to arrest anyone. They cannot take anyone into custody. They don’t carry weapons.

Real police are stationed nearby to take care of law enforcement issues when they arise.

The situation outside of St. Louis brought this home to me again this week. And, as I was pondering the issue, I read this article, Stop Arming the Police Like a Military, by Dr. Tom Nolan, an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I always enjoy articles when veterans of police forces and experts agree with me.

Have no doubt, police in the United States are militarizing, and in many communities, particularly those of color, the message is being received loud and clear: “You are the enemy.” Police officers are increasingly arming themselves with military-grade equipment such as assault rifles, flashbang grenades, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles and dressing up in commando gear before using battering rams to burst into the homes of people who have not been charged with a crime. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that the Pentagon has played a huge role in this militarization by transferring its weapons of war to civilian police departments through its so-called 1033 program.

Many communities now look upon police as an occupying army, their streets more reminiscent of Baghdad or Kabul than a city in America. This besieged mentality created by the militarization of police has driven a pernicious wedge into the significant gains made under community- and problem-oriented policing initiatives dating from the late 1980s.

Mr. Nolan goes on to say, “Militarized policing undermines the very notion of law enforcement in a democratic society.” That is the same message that I carried to the House of Representatives with my testimony.

The positioning of TSA as a law enforcement organization (though it is not), rather than a helpful organization developed to assist passengers fly safely, has generated fear instead of reassurance. Whole-body scanners, hailed by TSA as a necessity for security, have not captured one would-be terrorist, while subjecting masses of our population to a virtual strip search.

Screaming, scared children have been forcibly separated from their parents. Feeble, barely-able-to-stand elders quiver and shake beside their wheelchairs as they are screened while family members are forbidden to assist them. Women are subjected to treatment that would result in the arrest of anyone performing such a search outside of the parallel TSA airport-check-point universe. We all hear the stories.

Worse, TSA has become a subject of derision. Even President Obama noted to laughter during a State of the Union address, that Americans should support high-speed trains as an alternative to flying because, “for some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down.”

In my oral presentation, I added, “Dress TSA security screeners in non-threatening uniforms, perhaps, pastel polo shirts.” I continued, “They are security assistants, not law enforcement officers. Their job is to check identification and make sure the traveling public is safe, not to force citizens into submission. Get rid of the starched shirts, badges and bling.”

Whether it is the police force dressed like storm troopers in Ferguson or your community; or, TSA security assistants masquerading as law enforcement officers in military uniforms; this militarization is not healthy for a democratic society.

Putting TSA security teams in pastel polo shirts would be a good beginning.

Should TSA uniform be less threatening

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  • Lisa Simeone

    Yes, but the uniform is the least of it.

    Hate to say it, but it has to be said: these are our chickens coming home to roost. The U.S. has invaded so many homes in so many countries, terrorizing innocent people left and right. It’s poetic justice that the harm we have for so long inflicted on others we are now inflicting on ourselves.

    And this started, of course, long before the fearmongering “war on terror” with the equally oppressive “war on drugs.”

    Our overmilitarized nation is becoming more Stasi-like with each passing day. People who refuse to see it have their heads in the sand.

  • CelticWhisper

    I can’t help but scratch my head at the poll question. Here we have a very candid article, justly deriding TSA for all of its myriad abuses of the traveling public, and yet the poll question is over so minor a detail as the uniforms these thuggish clerks wear on the job. I agree that they should be dressed in something other than their cop-a-like monkey suits (something like a clown outfit would be more fitting, or an orange jumpsuit with their employee number in bold print across the breast and back, to say nothing of the possibility of traveler-complaint-activated shock collars), but there are much larger issues to address that were mentioned in the article.

    An easy, sensible step toward addressing problems with TSA is to give travelers some means of guaranteeing they will NOT be touched at any point during their trip through the airport. Speaking for myself, that would be a good step toward me being willing to fly again. I’ve not left the ground in 4 years and am quite happy never doing so again if TSA abuses don’t change. A huge part of why is that, as things stand right now, there is no way I can be 100% sure that I will not be touched by a stranger. Submitting to an electronic strip search does not preclude being groped, and signing up for Pre-(CHECK! Ha, ha, our logo is a check mark! It stands for check! Get it? We’re CHECKing you out, PRE flight! We are so clever! -Sincerely yours, TSA Marketing) “does not guarantee anyone expedited screening.”

    This means I could sign up for Pre-(CHECK!) and still be “selected for screening.” Once that happens, I could agree (under duress, as is the case with all air travelers) to go through the nude-o-scope, and STILL be pulled aside for a “resolution” freedom-fondle. No guarantee of no touching means no flying for me.

    And mind you, this is coming from someone with family in the airline industry, who could fly anywhere in the continental USH (the H is for Homeland) free of charge, but who still opted to spend upwards of $1000 on Amtrak rail fare to go on vacation last summer, solely for the purpose of avoiding TSA.

    Sure, the uniforms have to go. But there’s a lot more that has to go as well, and at this point the best way to accomplish it is to just abolish the entire agency and not replace it with anything at all. Those complaining about being out of jobs should have thought twice before taking jobs that require them to violate travelers’ Constitutional rights in the first place.

  • 1amWendy

    CelticWhisper, you nailed it perfectly. Just wish your “whisper” could be a clarion call from the highest mountain.

  • Daisiemae

    Preach it, Sister!

  • Daisiemae

    Speaking of heads in the sand….I had an interesting conversation with my podiatrist yesterday. I told him we no longer fly because of the abuse that TSA directs toward the disabled. He was astonished to hear about it.

    I cited Cathy Bossi, the flight attendant who was forced to remove her breast prosthesis; Savannah Barry, whose insulin pump was broken by TSA; Thomas Sawyer, who was left covered in urine when TSA broke his ostomy bag; three elderly disabled women who were strip searched at JFK: Ruth Sherman (colostomy bag), Linda Kalish (Insulin pump), and Lenore Zimmerman (heart defibrillator); and Jean Weber’s 95-year-old mother who was forced to remove her Depends undergarment.

    My podiatrist was stunned. He had never heard of any of these incidents. He told me he does not go on the internet, and he does not watch the news. He is busy with his practice and his life…like so many people today.

    So, yes, there is a big problem with heads in the sand. Those people will NOT believe anything unless it happens to them, and then they will somehow justify it.

    But there is also a big problem with people who still don’t know about all this stuff. I am running into these people constantly. They are horrified when they hear about it.

    So I don’t know what to do about this problem except keep telling everybody I come in contact with about the abuses of TSA. We must continue to get the word out to all and sundry.

  • Annapolis2

    What a person wears affects their own behavior – so this issue is about more than just how the public perceives the TSA, it’s also about how TSA clerks perceive themselves and their role. Dressing up a TSA clerk with a fake police uniform encourages said baggage clerk to think of him or herself as an authority who can order people around and abuse travelers with impunity. Anyone willing to take a job forcing sexual contact onto unwilling victims, some of whom are minors, deserves a prisoner’s uniform and not a fake badge.

  • CelticWhisper

    Ermmmmmm…I’m a man (though I do feel rather pretty today). But thanks anyway!

  • Susan Richart

    While I am very pleased to see discussion on the impact of dress on the militarization of police and TSA, I am disturbed to see the word “compliance” appear in so many comments at other sites regarding this topic. If you read sites where the participants are predominantly TSA employees, you will see the word frequently in their writings. (I’d bet before they joined the TSA most of them couldn’t use the word in a complete sentence.)

    It’s frightening that so many see our government as trying to make us complaint to anything they want to do to us. (We saw that with the fake screener incident recently.)

    I’m pleased that out of hundreds of comments on this topic that I have read today, only a very small handful support the government’s efforts.

    I wonder if the government and local LE will listen and hear what We, The People are saying.

  • sirwired

    I’ve always felt the TSA uniform looks like a low-key rent-a-cop uniform. Hardly a “Stormtrooper”. When I think “Stormtrooper” I think either Nazis or Star Wars, and the TSA uniform does not look even remotely like either.

    Toning down the hyperbole might help your cause.

  • RB

    TSA purposefully dresses airport screening clerks in cop like uniforms so that travelers associate these TSA screeners with real law enforcement.

    It should be a criminal act to impersonate a law enforcement officer and wearing a cop uniform with a cop badge is certainly an impersonation.

  • RB

    Freedom-fondle? How about sexual assault, that is what a TSA Grope Down is!

  • CelticWhisper

    But Ron, dontcha know that we need to be fondled or else the terrorists win? The terrorists want to take away our freedoms, so we have to have the government take them away first, to beat the terrorists to the finish line! ‘MURICA!

    (Sarcasm aside, I really wish someone would have enough of an ax to grind that they forsake the original intended purpose of their travel and stick around to have a smurf-clerk charged with SA at a minimum, but preferably felony rape.)

  • Lisa Simeone

    Hasn’t helped so far. Years of toning it down haven’t done anything. That’s why we’ve ratcheted it up.

  • LonnieC

    May I assume the five “no” votes are members of the TSA? :-)

  • Daisiemae

    Sorry about that. Somehow I thought you were someone else.

    In that case….Amen, Brother! Preach on!

  • VELS14

    So you’ve decided to let them win, to let TSA behavior bully you into submission. I refuse to let them win and will continue to fly and continue to complain. We’re never going to regain our rights by either knuckling under or walking away and let others fight our battles for us.

    I will add, however, despite more than 1 or 2 incidents, most TSA agents are polite and professional and don’t treat disabled people like second class citizens, and work to accommodate as much as possible. At least that’s what I personal found when I was traveling in a wheel chair before surgery got me back up.

  • VELS14

    Really well said. Thanks.

  • VELS14

    Yes and your over-the-top overwrought attitude has gotten you nothing.

  • VELS14

    I agree that it’s a so-so uniform, but a minority of TSA agents, though too many of them do get puffed up by wearing them.

    I don’t know about pastel polos, but Charlie’s right about doing away with the police style uniforms.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Yeah, so let’s just give up. That’s the spirit!

  • Lisa Simeone

    An economic boycott is not “letting them win.” This specious argument has been amply addressed, multiple times, including here:

    There are many ways to resist, not just one.

  • RB

    I would wait for TSA to pat down a child then call the cops and press charges. The cops would be hard pressed to not make a report seeing that a minor was involved. It wouldn’t bother me if the event was planned and setup to force a TSA pat down. Use their disgusting polices against them.

  • RB

    They must be french seeing as how they’re so eager to surrender.

  • steve b

    you think its funny huh ?Go into Detroit or Flint sometimes and I’m not talking about around all the Stadiums .These cops have to put their life on the line every time they go off the beaten path . It is a war zone and the criminals have better equipment because Flint and Detroit are broke and cant keep their police forces up to date .Ha ha pastel shirts .Go walk arounf Livernois and 6 mile at 1 am some night and see if you come back .I know your talking about airports but mr Norton Is talking about police forces. He has a pie in the sky view and has probably never been in the inner city. And I’m not putting down anyone in the hoods.I know they do what they do to get by .That’s their “jobs” . But don’t villify police Because that’s their job

  • Kfred

    Changing uniforms won’t make any difference. Only by returning to pre-911 security standards, which respected our Rights and dignity, will make any difference.
    Can we have a question that is more meaningful? The choices here mean nothing.

  • Kfred

    For many, a boycott means their jobs. Until I quit a job that required flying 90,000+ mile annually, I was a constant pain in the side of any TSA agent since I wouldn’t roll over and let them have their way without protest. I was polite but I made it very clear, every time I flew, that I did NOT agree to their methods.
    In essence, I was hostage to my work since I had to fly. The only way to remove that threat, was to quit. I now make about 1/4 of my previous salary and I’m pretty sure the airlines and hospitality industry could give a rip.

  • Kfred

    It could be because the uniform is such a minor part of the degradation and violations of Rights, that the answers are meaningless.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Kfred, totally understand. I know several people who’ve quit their jobs and taken a pay cut because they refuse to be abused by the TSA and because their employers are too stupid and insensitive to give a toss. (If any of such employers are reading this, I wish I believed in hell so I could hope you’d rot in it.)

    As I’ve said more times than I can count, people who are forced to fly for work, or for a medical or family emergency, are between a rock and a hard place and I sympathize with them.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Nobody thinks it’s funny. And I live in the inner city, in Baltimore. I know what crime is. I also know that the people on the street aren’t the only criminals around. Some of them wear uniforms.

    Of course there are good cops. They should be outraged that the bad ones amongst them are giving them all a bad name.

    I also know that actual cops are pissed off that the TSA are play-acting as law enforcement.

  • anglocooler48

    Dressing screeners like cops was done deliberately to intimidate the public. At around the same time they started calling them Transportation Security *Officers*, which is rather like calling garbage collectors “Sanitary Engineers.” (No offense to garbage collectors — they just aren’t engineers any more than screeners are officers.)

  • Michael Landers

    It’s like buying gas. People have to do it and the oil companies take advantage of that just like the TSA takes advantage of people’s need to fly

  • VELS14

    No one said anything about giving up, just using a strategy which might have a chance at success. You give no one who doesn’t swallow your line, hook and sinker any reason to do anything but get their back up and go the other way.

  • Jack Stinglash

    You seem not to understand the rhetorical element called sarcasm.