Customs Service Rework Controversial Drug Searches

Customs Service Rework Controversial Drug Searches
Posted by FoM on March 11, 1999 at 19:16:05 PT

WASHINGTON Beset by investigations and lawsuits alleging abusive tactics, the Customs Service is retraining officers who check airline passengers for drugs and trying new technology to reduce the need for invasive body searches. 
The changes come as new statistics show the number of cocaine and heroin smugglers caught at airports dropped by one-fourth in 1998. That poses a two-pronged problem for Customs officials eager to reverse the decline while tempering public anger over the way travelers are searched. ``This search authority is crucial for us,'' Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press. ``We're trying to show movement in the right direction so that we keep the authority but make it a less onerous process.'' In pursuit of smugglers who swallow packets of drugs, officers have subjected passengers to strip searches, taken them in handcuffs to hospitals for X-rays, and detained some for hours or even days. Almost 100 black women in Chicago are pursuing a joint lawsuit claiming they were singled out unfairly because of their race. Nationally, Customs is facing 12 lawsuits over searches of airline passengers, a spokesman said. Only a small fraction of the 69 million passengers who pass through Customs each year are questioned. About 50,000 were subjected to some level of body search in 1997. Searches usually begin with a frisk or pat-down and, with reasonable suspicion, can proceed to a strip search, X-ray or monitored bowel movement. Drugs were found on about one-fourth of passengers subjected to partial or full strip searches, the agency says. The rate was close to 100 percent a decade ago, Kelly said, but smugglers have become more sophisticated and difficult to recognize. Kelly acknowledged body searches can be traumatic and have become a ``significant problem'' for Customs. The Senate Finance Committee, the General Accounting Office and the Treasury Department are all investigating Customs' airport searches. Illinois senators raised the issue last year after WMAQ-TV reported on complaints from black women searched at Chicago's O'Hare airport. In December, the AP reported that travelers across the country were complaining of abusive searches. Since then, Customs has taken several steps to defuse the issue: --An extensive new training program began last month for inspectors at airports. ``It involves both what to look for but also how to handle people, cultural diversity training, that sort of thing,'' Kelly said. --Since Feb. 1, inspectors at Miami and New York's Kennedy airports have given travelers chosen for a pat-down the option of standing in front of a body-imaging machine instead. Twenty-three people have agreed to the low-radiation imaging, which looks through clothing. In Miami on Tuesday, one of the machines revealed 3 1/2 pounds of marijuana in a bicycle tire strapped around a man's waist, officials said. Body imaging may be added to other airports if it proves effective and less objectionable to passengers, a spokesman said. In some cases, travelers also have been given the option of submitting to an X-ray in lieu of a strip search. --The Customs Service plans to install X-ray machines and technicians at major airports to check suspects without transporting them to a hospital. The agency is looking for a contractor and has requested $9 million for the program in 2000. --Customs is also researching whether breathalyzer technology could be used to detect latex condoms and balloons, which smugglers fill with drugs and swallow. --Signs and brochures were being installed in airports this week to explain why travelers might be subjected to a body search, and new comment cards make it easier to complain about mistreatment. Customs also wants to add a search warning to the declarations forms travelers fill out. ``People are surprised,'' Kelly said. ``Someone says, 'Go over there' and the next thing you find out, you're being searched.'' Agency officials are worried that the lawsuits over searches, generally filed against individual officers, may be having a chilling effect on inspectors, Customs spokesman Dennis Murphy said. A traveler won a $450,000 judgment against Customs officers in San Francisco last year. The number of travelers caught carrying cocaine or heroin under their clothes or inside their bodies fell from 916 seizures in 1997 to 677 in fiscal 1998. ``There is concern that these lawsuits have caused people to back off a little bit,'' contrary to agency policy, Murphy said. Murphy said other factors may include a temporary shift of some resources away from personal searches for a crackdown on cargo smuggling last year and inventive new tactics used by drug suppliers. For example, some now send a decoy passenger to distract inspectors while four or five drug couriers on the same flight slip by undetected.
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