- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

The U.S. Customs Service, responding to complaints over searches it conducted of suspected smugglers at airports nationwide, says new techniques have allowed the agency to conduct fewer searches while confiscating more contraband.
"The new statistics indicate Customs is searching fewer innocent travelers of all races and genders, while doing a better job of catching those carrying contraband," said Customs Commissioner Raymond F. Kelly. "Nevertheless, our efforts are a work in progress. There is much more to be done."
The new procedures were put into effect after several complaints and a dozen lawsuits accused the agency of targeting travelers for searches based on race and gender. Customs has used strip and body searches, along with X-rays, to detect smugglers who hide cocaine or heroin inside their bags, clothing or in packets they have swallowed.
Beginning in 1998, Customs began a series of reforms Mr. Kelly said were aimed at ensuring that neither racial nor gender bias played a role in the selection of passengers for Customs personal searches.
The reforms included an increased role of supervisors in the search process; new training for Customs inspectors; increased legal oversight of the process; mandatory data collection of all searches; new technology to make the searches less intrusive; and an information program to tell the traveling public about the search program.
Figures released this week show that Customs conducted 61 percent fewer personal searches of airline passengers in fiscal 2000 (October 1999 through September 2000). The total number of searches was 9,008, down from 23,108 last year.
Mr. Kelly said travelers are five times less likely to undergo a personal search today than two years ago, although the number of drug seizures resulting from searches conducted this fiscal year compared to last increased by 25 percent.
He also said that agents conducted 60 percent fewer searches of black airline passengers during fiscal 2000 than in fiscal 1998 (2,437, compared with 6,141), although seizures from black travelers increased by 5 percent. Searches of Hispanic travelers, he said, dropped 82 percent during that same period (from 14,951 to 2,731), while seizures increased by 71 percent.
Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office confirmed some of the accusations made by passengers who filed lawsuits against Customs claiming they had been singled out by inspectors for examination on the basis of race. However, the GAO did not find a widespread pattern of such abuse.
GAO reviewed the 102,000 searches in 1997 and 1998, when some 140 million passengers entered this country. It said black women were "nine times more likely than white women who were U.S. citizens to be X-rayed after being frisked or patted down in fiscal year 1998."
It also said that black women who were U.S. citizens were less than half as likely to be found carrying contraband as white women who were U.S. citizens. The GAO also noted that "white men and women and black women were more likely than black men and Hispanic men and women to be strip-searched rather than patted down in fiscal year 1998."
In response, Mr. Kelly announced the creation of an independent review board to evaluate complaints of racial bias by Customs agents. He said at the time that if bias existed, "it is paramount that we find its cause and eliminate it." The board has evaluated Customs policies and procedures in processing international travelers.

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