Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stop and Frisk: Part 2

In an effort to ward off charges of racial profiling the TSA has adopted a policy of randomly searching anyone, regardless of the likelihood of that person being a terrorist. Although virtually all of the terrorists have been young muslim males, the TSA has famously search old people, people in wheelchairs and beauty queens. Therefore, somewhat like New York's stop and frisk, the TSA should explicitly target young muslim males. I think it is interesting that I have never once been targeted by the TSA even when I was flying almost 100,000 a year. Now most times when I fly I am with my girlfriend who has been targeted every time we have flown out of Knoxville. She has been humiliated and infuriated. Now when we fly together, we fly out of her home town of Kingsport where she is waved on through. Obviously the TSA feels that it is better to tick off everyone rather than one particular group, although I think that they are just gropers and voyeurs. I am against racial profiling, mainly because I belong to a group that is routinely profiled. I have been pulled over several times by the cops for DWB (driving while black). My son while living in Knoxville was stopped, told to assume the position and "asked" if they could search his car - perhaps blacks who drive expensive foreign convertibles are all drug dealers. Since I have a fairly high profile in the city, I got apologies from each of the cops and had the one citation I received thrown out of court. I also got targeted at the Johannesburg airport - as a tourist. One of the airport security people place a 375 H&H shell in my bag. I said I don't own that caliber and anyway, I am bow hunting. To avoid getting carted off to an interrogation room and missing my connecting flight, I had to pay a $50 bribe. As a consequence, the vast majority of those who favor profiling don't belong to a group that is likely to be profiled. I know, you will say that whites in particular old whites are not likely to be bombers. But what about Bernadine Dorn or William Ayres? Believe me, if the TSA started profiling muslims then al-Quaeda would start recruiting blond blue eye bombers. So what can be done. There are those civil libertarians and many on the right and left who argue that the TSA impinges on our liberties. Many cite Ben Franklin who famously said "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety." Yet must you choose less freedom in order to be safe and secure? This seems to be a Hobson's choice - which is one or the other. (Note: I know some say Hobbesian choice after the philosopher but its really Hobson after the livery owner). I do not believe the two are conflicting at all. Rather, the TSA could adopt a policy much like that of El Al, the Israeli airline that is considered the world's safest against terrorism. It is said that El Al does not search passengers randomly nor does it profile. In Israel, 15 percent of the citizens are muslim but instead of profiling El Al watches for suspicious behavior. This can pay dividends for it apprehended several blonde women from Scandinavia who had bombs placed (unknowing to them) in their belongings by their muslim boyfriends. However, the truth is different. El Al profiles. In 2010 two brothers who were Palestinian Israelis sued and were awarded damages from EL Al for their treatment at a New York airport. The two were part of a group of 17 Israeli insurance agents on a business trip. At the airport, El Al security assigned a female security guard to watch them until their plane departed. The 15 Jews went through security with no problem but the two brothers were questioned, searched, had their baggage and carry-ons searched. Then they were told to have the security guard see them at all times. When one of the brothers went to the bathroom without permission, an argument ensued. He was told to either apologize to the guard or not board the flight. He apologized. In court, El Al admitted that the brothers did not pose a security threat but was acting under Israeli security guidelines. The Arab Association for Human Rights says that El Al which conducts its own security at foreign airports regularly subjects its Arab passengers regularly subjected to body and strip searches, had items including computers confiscated, kept in holding areas, escorted directly on to the plane and had their luggage tagged with colored stickers (see http://electronicintifada.net/content/el-al-sued-racial-profiling/8793). Therefore, it seems to me that what should be done is to do what El Al is said to do rather than what it does. Rather than profile, watch for suspicious behavior. Although TSA may actually have prevented some terrorism just by being there, the high profile cases where terrorism has been prevented have been where the terrorist got on the plane and the passengers thwarted the attack. As some wag has said, if TSA changes its policy, instead of being evil and useless it will only be useless.


ProvocateurAtLarge said...

The stop-and-frisk policy is based on social perception, which includes both reasoned and automatic or intuitive judgements. Stereotypes are involved as well, and attitudes, including bigotry. The question is the accuracy of judgment by various people about various people, which then brings in research on expertise (experts being sensitive to cues others overlook, even when it's not conscious.) If the cops were never wrong nobody would complain, but they can't reach that standard. Nobody can. One can, however, learn to be better. That requires both research and training, though, which I doubt either of those mayoral assholes (Bloomberg or Emmanuel) would support. The El Al case is similar, and of course they profile. So should the cops. One doesn't ignore valid information even if it's merely statistical rather than causal. That doesn't mean any of them, cops or TSA, should be bullies, which unfortunately a lot of them are. That's a different problem.
Here's the issue: When you're using probabilistic information to make a decision, you've got to relate a "score" of some kind to the criterion, in this case criminal posession of a dangerous weapon. The score here is subjective (Is this guy suspicious?) but it doesn't have to be; the principle is the same. When the score reaches some threshold you take action, in this case stop and frisk or an intrusive search at the airport. There are 2 correct decisions, stopping a real criminal and letting an innocent go unexamined. There are 2 mistakes, a false negative (letting a bad guy go) and a false positive (detaining and upsetting an innocent person.) There are costs and benefits associated with each alternative outcome, and these are often subjective or at least not easily scalable. The rub here is that in the absence of perfect validity, any change in the action threshold aimed at reducing one kind of mistake inevitably increases the other. Want to reduce false positives and keep indignant people off your back? The price is more false negatives, maybe someone getting shot in NYC or maybe more buildings with airplanes in them and thousands of mutilated corpses that used to be mothers, fathers and children. Want to reduce false negatives and keep some but not all of that from happening? You're back to dangerous violations of civil liberties and a bunch of pissed-off people. The situation is made worse by the fact that both events, the terrorist and the criminal, are very low base rate. That is, even in Chicago, the percentage of criminals in the population is quite small, at least outside of Ciy Hall and Democrat Party headquarters. The relative frequency of terrorists is even less. You can be right the vast majority of the time by simply saying that nobody is a terrorist and have zero false positives, zero true positives, but 99+% true negatives and <1% false negatives. That's unacceptable because the cost of the false negative is astronomical in both human and economic terms. Any other course of action in a low base rate environment leads to more total errors. You get to pick which kind.
Unfortunately the TSA has chosen the worst possible way to resolve the conflict, randomly stepping all over civil liberties while diverting resources from detecting real threats. It also, for political reasons, employs utterly unqualified people who are very difficult to fire and who may seek the positions in order to bully others. The Israelis are right, having decided to suck up the false-positive cost in order to avoid the far greater false negative. They also carefully train their people so overall errors are kept to a minimum. If the police did something similar, that is selected properly, trained extensively and managed intelligently, your son might still have been stopped but likely would have been treated politely and sent on his way with a sincere apology. Yeah, like that will happen.

H.A. Black said...

You are absolutely correct. Perhaps if airport security were privatized it would come up with a more optimal solution.