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TSA responds to elder 'strip-search' furor

Posted by Paul Makishima, Globe Assistant Sunday Editor  December 12, 2011 11:00 AM

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Bob Burns, a social media analyst and blogger with the TSA, offered an update on the agency's response to the uproar over recent reports of three elderly woman who claimed they either were "strip searched'' or forced to undergo intrusive searches, requiring them to remove some clothing.

Burns begins his latest blog by reiterating the agency's position on strip searches:

"TSA does not, and has never, conducted strip searches and no strip searches occurred in any of these incidents.''

He goes on to say that TSA officials convened a call last week with members of various advocacy groups to talk about policies and procedures and to let them know that the agency plans to set up an 800 number to offer guidance to travelers with disabilities and medical conditions about screening procedures.

Bob then offered some tips, including these two:

TSA officers do not ask passengers to remove clothing to expose a sensitive area or to remove a medical device or brace. We have special procedures that allow us to safely screen passengers with disabilities.

Notification cards, are a great way for passengers to discreetly let us know about a medical condition or disability. Passengers may present these cards at the checkpoint to our officers.


Some of the Burns's tips, however, raised questions about these and other cases.

For instance, one of the elderly women, Lenore Zimmerman, 85, who opted not to go through a screening machine at New York's JFK Airport, says a TSA worker forced her to remove her pants so they could check a back brace and a support belt. In response, Burns says Zimmerman's case was a matter of a "miscommunication.'' The TSA officers were "told that the passenger was wearing a money belt.'' After Zimmerman removed the support, they learned that it was in fact a brace so they decided, since she had removed it already anyway, to X-ray it and then return it.

Burns also did not address the case of a second elderly woman, Ruth Sherman, 88, who said that TSA officers at JFK asked her to pull down the waist of her pants to show them her colostomy bag, an area that Sherman considers sensitive. "This is private for me, you know,'' she told Associated Press reporters.

The suggestion about notification cards appears useful but at least one incident in late September gives rise to doubts. In that case a business consultant who had a bilateral mastectomy as part of breast cancer treatment and had tissue expanders inserted before reconstruction surgery was patted down after a scanner detected the devices. She offered to show agents at JFK a notification card about the devices that was in her wallet, but they refused to allow her to retrieve it and went ahead with the search.

At the time Burns offered her an apology from the agency. He went on to say that cards will not exempt anyone from a search but may make officers more "empathetic.''

Medical cards, whether from a physician or TSA, do not exempt you from screening. They're a great way for passengers to discreetly let us know about a medical situation or disability they have. This is very helpful for the passenger and our officers because it lets us know how to better screen the passenger. Passengers may present these cards at the checkpoint to our officers. In this case, our officers should have allowed the passenger to present her card and been more empathetic to her situation while completing the screening process.


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