In wake of LAX shooting, real talk needed about TSA

Monday - 11/11/2013, 4:50pm EST

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

On Nov. 1, Transportation Security Officer Gerardo Hernandez was killed in the line of duty at Los Angeles International Airport. Hernandez was the first TSO to die in the line of duty. He deserves our thanks for his service and sacrifice. He left a wife and two children who will have to learn to live their lives without their dad and husband. Hernandez and his brother and sister TSOs deserve our thanks for their sacrifices to help make us safer.

(Photo courtesy of Jeff Neal)

Like many people, when my only perspective of TSA was that of a traveler, I used to complain about TSA and the security process at airports. It seemed slow, not very logical, and could be irritating. Then I went to work as Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

In those 2+ years, I learned a lot about TSA, its tactics, training, organization and its workforce. I learned there was far more to TSA and its methods than I had ever known. I learned the agency is full of professionals who work long hours on our behalf, and who care deeply about their work. The more I learned about TSA and its people, the more I realized my opinion of them was based on the inconvenience I and others experience when we travel, on articles I read and political coverage on television. None of it was based on facts and real knowledge of what was happening. What a difference some facts can make.

What impressed me most about TSA is the frontline workforce. The Air Marshals and Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) do a lot for us that we never know about. After the Nov. 1 shooting, debates have started again regarding the TSA's mission, the effectiveness of passenger and baggage screening, and even whether TSOs should be called "officer" and wear badges.

I'm sure most of us still remember TSOs being called child molesters for searching child passengers. Like many political issues in Washington, this one is being demagogued and TSOs are being targeted. After a murderer literally targeted and killed a TSO and wounded others, maybe it is a good time to tone down the rhetoric for a change, focus on security policy and knock off the verbal and physical attacks on TSOs.

Recently, I wrote a post about civil service reform in the 19th century and quoted Teddy Roosevelt, who said, "The worst enemies of the Republic are the demagogue and the corruptionist." I wish more people agreed with him today.

Some of the arguments being made now make sense if you look at them in a vacuum, but we don't live in a vacuum. Take the "officer" argument. The term "officer" is used in government to mean many different things. We have HR Officers, Budget Officers, Police Officers and many more. There are many Police Officers in government who wear badges, drive marked police cars, carry guns and have absolutely no arrest authority. The question of using the term "officer" might be a legitimate policy debate, but it can be had without using the argument to demean and insult TSOs.

One of the most important facts I learned at DHS is that TSOs have a difficult job. They work long hours, are not paid well and often deal with abuse from the traveling public. They have to make quick judgments regarding things they see on screens in front of them and are subject to random proficiency testing. What's worse, TSOs have been cursed at, spat upon and assaulted, not only by travelers, but in one case while I was DHS CHCO, by an airline employee. Say what you will about security procedures, but directing anger about policy at the people at the lowest rung in the organization is picking on people who are in no position to change it and it is just plain mean.

Those folks who get frustrated by the screening process should try a change of tactics. If you think the procedures should be changed, write to TSA or your representatives and express your views. They are the ones who wrote the law and created the screening practices, and they are the only ones who can change them. Instead of being rude to TSOs or acting like they aren't real people, next time you travel, try saying thank you when you go through screening. You will feel better and you may just make someone's day.

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Copyright 2013 by Jeff Neal. All rights reserved.


Jeff Neal is founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.