U.S. Customs Service:

Better Targeting of Airline Passengers for Personal Searches Could Produce Better Results

GGD-00-38: Published: Mar 17, 2000. Publicly Released: Apr 10, 2000.

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Laurie E. Ekstrand
(202) 512-3000


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed policies and procedures for conducting personal searches to determine the controls Customs Service has in place to ensure that airline passengers are not inappropriately selected or subjected to personal searches, focusing on how the Customs' personal search data: (1) identifies the characteristics--race and gender--of passengers who were more or less likely to be subjected to more intrusive searches; and (2) the results of searching those passengers.

GAO noted that: (1) inspectors select passengers for further examination on the basis of Customs' policies and procedures and their professional judgment and experience; (2) of those selected for further examination, about 102,000 passengers were subjected to some form of personal search; (3) of those 102,000 passengers, 95 percent were searched by inspectors for contraband or hidden weapons by patting the passenger's clothed body, 4 percent were strip-searched, and 1 percent were subjected to an x-ray examination; (4) about 3 percent of frisked passengers had positive results; 23 percent of the strip-searches were positive; and 31 percent of x-ray searches were positive; (5) searched passengers of particular races and gender were more likely than other passengers to be subjected to more intrusive types of personal searches after the initial patdown; (6) however, in some cases those types of passengers who were more likely to be subjected to more intrusive personal searches were not as likely to be found carrying contraband; (7) White men and women and Black women were more likely than Black men and Hispanic men and women to be strip-searched rather than patted down or frisked, but they were less likely to be found carrying contraband; (8) Black women were found to be 9 times more likely than White women who were U.S. citizens to be x-rayed after being frisked or patted down in fiscal year 1998; (9) on the basis of x-ray results, Black women who were U.S. citizens were less than half as likely to be found carrying contraband as White women who were U.S. citizens; (10) patterns of selecting passengers for more intrusive searches indicated that these searches sometimes resulted in certain types of passengers being selected at rates that were not consistent with the rates of finding contraband; (11) during GAO's review, Customs developed new policies and procedures for personal searches that include new requirements for supervisory review and approval and procedures intended to ensure that passengers subjected to personal searches know their rights; and (12) GAO identified four management controls, such as training provided to inspectors and supervisors on conducting personal searches and more systematic evaluation of complaints, which Customs uses to help ensure that inspectors use their search authority fairly and judiciously.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While Customs agreed with our recommendation, it chose to address the passenger selection process differently. It increased supervisory review of passengers target for personal search. This resulted in fewer searches but does help to refine its search criteria.

    Recommendation: The Customs Service should analyze the characteristics of passengers selected for intrusive searches and the results of those searches as part of the periodic evaluation it has agreed to do on the basis of the Office of Professional Responsibility's recommendation. It should use these data to help to develop criteria for determining which passengers to search.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security


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