When Mary MacCarthy and her 10-year-old daughter were met by police as they stepped off their flight in Denver last month, she thought the officers were bearing bad news about her family. MacCarthy was in town for her brother’s funeral and later said she thought the police presence meant another one of her family members had died.
What followed surprised her.
Two Denver police officers, accompanied by a Southwest Airlines manager, were there to investigate a report of possible human trafficking, according to a police report. A flight attendant, the report states, thought that MacCarthy and her daughter had acted strangely on the plane and that their behavior warranted investigation. MacCarthy is White and her daughter is Black.
As police questioned the mother and daughter after the plane landed, the girl started to cry.
It did not take long for police to determine that MacCarthy did not abduct the 10-year-old, according to the report. The pair was soon free to leave, but MacCarthy recalled in a subsequent letter to the airline that her daughter was traumatized by the incident.
“I believed we had been racially profiled,” MacCarthy told KMOV.
Southwest did not immediately respond to questions from The Washington Post early Monday. In a statement to USA Today, the airline said its employees are trained to spot instances of human trafficking, and they seek to provide “a welcoming and inclusive environment.”
“We were disheartened to learn of this mother’s account when traveling with her daughter,” the airline stated. “We are conducting a review of the situation internally, and we will be reaching out to the customer to address her concerns and offer our apologies for her experience traveling with us.”
In recent years, airlines have trained flight staff to spot and report instances of human trafficking. One Alaska Airlines flight attendant recalled to NBC how she helped a teenager she suspected was being trafficked.
Flight attendants are taught to look for indicators of trafficking, such as passengers avoiding eye contact with staff, not speaking the same language as the person they are traveling with, or not speaking for themselves, according to 2018 guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organization. However, airline workers are also trained not to profile certain people as they look for signs of trafficking, Insider reported.
On Oct. 22, MacCarthy and her daughter were flying to Denver from Los Angeles because MacCarthy’s brother had died the night before, she explained in a Nov. 1 letter to Southwest. The two had to catch a connecting flight in San Jose, Calif., and by the time the pair boarded the flight to Denver, it was so full they could not sit together.
Not wanting to be separated, MacCarthy asked flight attendants if she could be seated next to her daughter. But they “said no,” MacCarthy wrote. Yet MacCarthy was allowed to ask others to trade seats with her, and the mother quickly found willing passengers.
But a flight attendant thought MacCarthy’s actions were suspicious, according to a police report. The attendant, who is not named in the report, said MacCarthy and her daughter were the last passengers to board the plane, and MacCarthy was “demanding” she sit next to her daughter. The flight attendant also alleged that MacCarthy did not speak to her daughter during the flight and found it “odd” that she did not allow the girl speak to the flight crew, the report states. So the flight attendant wanted airline management to follow up with MacCarthy when the plane landed.
MacCarthy remembers the flight differently. In a Nov. 1 letter to a Denver Police Department detective, MacCarthy explained that she and her daughter likely did not speak much because they were “exhausted and in shock due to my brother having died suddenly the night before.” Her daughter also listened to an audiobook for part of the flight, “but we certainly chatted from time to time, as any parent and child would do when seated together,” MacCarthy recalled in her letter.
So it was quite a shock when police and the Southwest manager stopped them after they had landed, she said. MacCarthy recorded part of the encounter on her phone.
“The flight attendants were just concerned about the behavior when you boarded the aircraft – that’s all we’re following up on,” a Southwest employee told MacCarthy, according to the video. “We’re not suspecting anything. It’s just our policy to follow up.”
A police officer also explained that the daughter shouldn’t be scared “because you’re not in any trouble whatsoever.”
As her daughter cried in the background, MacCarthy explained who she was, why she wanted to sit next to her daughter, and how she was grieving the death of her brother. The Southwest employee said: “That’s all we needed to know. You guys are good. I do apologize.”
“It’s not,” MacCarthy replied. “Because I have a daughter who has already unfortunately been traumatized by police in her life.”
MacCarthy took to Twitter that day, questioning why the incident transpired. “Was the alleged ‘suspicious behavior’ the fact that we are a mixed-race family?” she wrote.
MacCarthy did not immediately respond to questions from The Washington Post early Monday. But her attorney, David Lane, said in a statement to People that the police were merely responding to a complaint and not to blame. Instead, he pointed the finger at the airline.
“Had the child been white, there is absolutely no doubt that this would never have occurred,” Lane said.