TSA pat-downs cross a line, Anchorage woman alleges

TSA spokesman James Gregory told The Associated Press that employees who volunteer are sent to the border on 45-day rotations and can ask to stay longer. (Photo: DHS)
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Despite it being in the name of safety, for many travelers, going to an airport and through security can be a huge headache. But for some travelers, it goes beyond that.

"I think it's fairly typical that people think, 'There's policy, there's procedures, they're not doing anything they're not supposed to be doing,' " said Janell O'Brien, who flies often for work. "It's part of what we have to go through in order to say safe to fly."

"But I didn't feel like I had rights," said O'Brien, who has metal in her knee, necessitating a hand pat-down nearly every time she flies.

That pat-down portion of security screening through the Transportation Security Administration is also a trigger, reminding her of an experience she doesn't ever want to relive: A sexual assault dating back decades.

"It's not something that rules my life," O'Brien said, "and I don't walk around and wear it as a badge. I don't feel like I'm a victim, and it's just not something I think about on a daily basis. But going through the airport has changed that a bit."

O'Brien explained that in the past few months alone, she's felt increasingly uncomfortable with how TSA has handled her pat-downs.

She said there have been multiple instances of physical contact without request or warning; times when officers did not verbalize what they were doing and why; and, she said, on more than one occasion, incidents of inappropriate touching, on and sometimes inside her vulva.

"So, when I know I have to go through security, I start getting tense," O'Brien said, "and I start planning on what I am going to wear to try to alleviate it."

"My first thought was, 'I don't want to inconvenience anybody; I don't want to make anybody go out of their way,' " she said. "And then I thought, 'No. I am going to say that I am a victim of sexual assault. Please be sensitive to that as you're patting me down.'"

O'Brien is one of millions of travelers and thousands of crew members who go through Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport each year. In 2018, there were 5,503,257 passengers who enplaned, deplaned, and were in transit at Ted Stevens, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation.

All passengers and crew are required to go through security screenings. Pat-downs are done by an officer of the same gender as the passenger, and TSA maintains that at any time during the process, a passenger may request a private screening, behind a closed door, accompanied by a companion of your choice.

Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for TSA, pointed us via email to a video explaining pat-downs, saying it is agency policy not to comment on pat-down procedures.

In the video provided by TSA, a narrator can be heard saying that "the screening includes sensitive areas of the body where pressure must be applied to ensure protection."

TSA guidelines, as written on the agency's website, emphasize a few of the things passengers can expect during a pat-down: Officers are meant to explain the procedures to passengers as they conduct the pat-down, which can include inspection of the head, neck, arms, hand, back, torso, legs, and feet, including head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks; pat-downs require sufficient pressure, she said, to ensure detection; and officers are to use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body, unless extra screening with the front of the hand is needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

For some, however, the screening process can feel more like a horror than a help. No matter the gender of the officer or passenger, O'Brien said she feels officers are getting increasingly aggressive with the pat-downs. She's written letters to at least three airports, including here in Anchorage.

A TSA statement sent to KTUU said, "TSA's security screening procedures are in place to ensure that prohibited and dangerous items that pose a threat to security are not allowed on board an aircraft... TSA officers are required to follow established protocols when conducting pat-downs to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public."

However, when asked if officers are required to ask people if they have permission to pat them down or if officers warn passengers that they are about to make physical contact, Dankers replied only that officers are to tell the passenger what to expect and explain what will occur, then explain - as the officer conducts the pat-down - what is happening as it happens. She could not comment further on the procedure, she said.

"I know they have policies and procedures," O'Brien said, "but I am going to say it every time. If I'm not listened to or I'm cut off, I'm going to say it again until somebody hears me."

If you are looking to submit a comment directly to TSA, please click here.

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