Airport Racial Profiling App Brings In Complaints Against TSA

Searching Breast Milk, Turbans, Genitals: Mobile App Is 'TSA's Watchdog'

WASHINGTON -- A new mobile app that enables travelers to file reports of alleged racial profiling by the Transportation Security Administration from the airport lodged 28 complaints in its first 10 days, nearly three times the number filed with the agency during the first half of 2011.

More than 10,000 people have downloaded the FlyRights app since it debuted May 1. The app, which was developed by the Sikh Coalition and launched with the help of civil rights groups representing African Americans, Muslims and South Asians, simplifies the TSA's own complaint process.

"People of all backgrounds are using the app and in doing so are exponentially increasing the number of official complaints filed with the TSA," said Amardeep Singh, director of programs at the Sikh Coalition, in an email. "Since the TSA has been an ineffective watchdog for itself, we hope the public, using this app, can be the TSA's watchdog."

He noted that the 28 complaints filed with the app since May 1 exceeded the 11 filed with the TSA during the first six months of last year, the most recent count made available by the agency.

The first complaint sent through the app came from a woman who felt hassled at the airport in San Jose, Calif., after she told a TSA officer she was carrying breast milk. Several came from men who wear turbans and said they were subjected to excessive scrutiny. At some airports, the Sikh Coalition says, Sikh travelers -- whose religion requires men to wear turbans -- are subjected to secondary screening 100 percent of the time.

Complaints came from airports across the country, including those in New York (LaGuardia), Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C. App users, whose names were not provided to protect their privacy, wrote about rude TSA screeners and intrusive pat-downs.

One man, who refused to walk through a body scanner at Tampa International Airport, said that a male screener during the subsequent pat-down "[p]ut his fingers in my pants, rubbing all around my body -- displaced my testicles repeatedly with his hand -- touched my penis. It should be noted I was not wearing baggy clothing" that could have concealed a weapon. The passenger asserted that when he complained to a supervisor about having his genitals touched, the supervisor replied that "it was my fault for being 'gifted.'"

The app is available for Apple or Android phones.

It has two main buttons: "Report" and "Know Your Rights." The "Report" button allows a user to answer all the questions the TSA asks in its complaint form plus a few additional inquiries, such as whether there were witnesses to the incident and what protected category of individuals, if any, the person believes the mistreatment was aimed at. The information is submitted directly to the TSA, with an option to share the filing of the complaint on Twitter or Facebook.

The "Know Your Rights" button provides the TSA's own information about air travelers' rights so users can compare their treatment to how the TSA says they should be treated.

According to the TSA, travelers who have concerns about their treatment may ask to speak to a supervisor or a customer support manager at the airport, communicate with the agency through the TSA Contact Center, submit feedback online through the "Talk-to-TSA" feature or file a civil rights complaint with the agency.

The TSA also has set up a toll-free helpline (855-787-2227) that those with medical conditions and disabilities can call prior to traveling to learn about screening policies, procedures and otherwise what to expect at the security checkpoint.

"TSA's diverse workforce is committed to treating each traveler with dignity and respect throughout the screening process," TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne emailed HuffPost. "We continually engage with community organizations, including the Sikh Coalition, and individuals to help us understand unique passenger concerns and we support efforts to gather passenger feedback about the screening process. We encourage any traveler with a concern about potential discrimination to contact TSA directly through our numerous channels of communication."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne as a spokesman.

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