They are sniffing, but is anyone noticing?

A recent GAO report on TSA’s canine program revealed that while canines have been deployed in record numbers in the past three years TSA needs to do more analysis to ensure the teams are being effectively used. The report also showed that some canine teams were repeatedly not in compliance with TSA’s monthly training requirement, to ensure they remain proficient in explosives detection.

However, the report did not address the effectiveness of the canines themselves. The program has been around since 1972 and canine detection of explosives is still considered the gold standard in the industry.

The report also addressed the Passenger Screening Canine (PSC) program, which deploys canines specially trained to detect explosives on individuals rather than just on suitcases or within vehicles.

The report also stated the TSA should increase the percentage of air cargo it requires its air cargo canine teams to screen, or redeploy them to other areas.

While the report addresses some specific concerns, particularly with the passenger screening canines, it only lightly touched on some of the underlying issues with that program.

The majority of the report focused on TSA’s lack of tracking of their canine force. In some cases, training records were not properly kept and other cases the required amount of training minutes fell below standards. Specifically, TSA was not analyzing training data over time and was therefore unable to determine trends related to compliance with their training requirements.

TSA has a 240-minute per month training requirement for their canine teams. The report also noted differences in the rate of compliance between Transportation Security Inspector (TSI) and local law enforcement officer (LEO) teams. However, this difference points more towards how each agency logs training data.

Note: since 1972 the canine program consisted of local law enforcement officers being paired with a canine explosive dog trained by the Federal Aviation Administration. TSA took the program over after 9/11. In January 2008, TSA expanded the program to include civilian TSI canine teams who were primarily responsible for screening air cargo. Today, airports have both teams in existence, local on enforcement officers with TSA trained dogs, and civilian TSI personnel with TSA trained dogs. However, a TSI canine trained team costs $164,000 per year per team, compared to an equivalent law-enforcement officer team which cost about $53,000 per year. Part of this disparity may exist because for a law-enforcement dog team TSA only supplements the officers’ salary, however with the TSA civilian dog team TSA must cover the entire salary of the handler and all dog maintenance and care.

In response to the tracking of the use of TSA canines, TSA essentially said, we will fix this. The more complicated issue is the passenger screening canine.

The passenger screening canines were deployed about a year and a half ago. The concept is for the dog and handler to be moving through airport public areas with the dog notifying the handler if he or she smells an explosive substance on an individual.

On its face, it sounds like a good program. It is a program similar to what U.S. Customs has been doing for years. However, the question raised by the Airport Law Enforcement Agency Network (ALEAN), is what will happen when the civilian TSA canine team sniffs an explosive substance and it turns out to be a suicide bomber. ALEAN said there should be a law enforcement officer, in fact three of them, present for the passenger screening canine activity, so that the response to a suicide bomber is immediate.

Additionally, another problem with the PSC’s was understated in the report. GAO said that passenger screening canines have not been deployed to many of the high-risk airports and that such deployment was necessary to test the effectiveness of the program. However, the real problem in our industry, which is been a problem for several years, is what should local law enforcement do when TSA reports a suspicious person?

In the street, the suspicious person report is typically not given high priority by law enforcement unless there are other factors. ALEAN has worked for years to train airport law enforcement officers that a suspicious activity report at an airport requires a higher level of vigilance.

If a civilian transportation security inspector notifies law-enforcement that their dog detected a substance on an individual how should local law enforcement handle this? The simple answer it seems as for law enforcement to respond and search the individual – but if they are a suicide bomber, its game over before the cops have a chance to respond.

However, the Fourth Amendment and the guidance provided by Terry V Ohio also provide well-established precedents on what constitutes a reasonable search.

This is the same problem the law enforcement industry has been struggling with since the deployment of the TSA behavior detection officers. Perhaps this report will finally bring this issue to the forefront so that it can be dealt with.

Ironically, the GAO report criticized TSA for not forcing airports to accept the passenger screening canines. TSA stated they were trying to maintain industry relationships and that if there was a threat they would force the canines into those airports. What is ironic about that statement is TSA essentially just said they would force an unproven program into the airport.

This is a problem that has challenged TSA for years. Going back to the deployment of the explosive trace detection machines, otherwise known as puffers, through the deployment of the behavior detection officers and the whole body imagers TSA has a long record of deploying tactics and technologies before they are thoroughly tested. On the one hand I can agree with this philosophy because when the dam breaks you don’t worry about whether the sandbags will work you just throw them into the breach. Sometimes doing something is better than doing nothing, but it is clear that we need to do our homework to make sure we are doing the right thing – money and more importantly, lives are at stake.

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