Report Says Customs Targeted Black Women for Drug Searches, Customs Says Recent Reforms Are Working 4/14/00

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A report released Monday (4/10) by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) found that women, and particularly African-American women who traveled internationally, were much more likely than other travelers to be strip searched or X-rayed by US Customs, even though they were no more likely to be carrying drugs.  Customs has claimed, based on new data released this Monday, that stricter search selection criteria and other reforms instituted over the last year and a half have resulted in less racial disparity -- and increased drug seizures overall -- during the past six months.

The GAO report, which studied Customs search data from 1997-1998, was ordered by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin last year amid increased complaints of racial bias in the way travelers were chosen for searches, and the extent or invasiveness of the searches to which certain travelers were subjected.  Those complaints have also prompted more than 1,300 African-American women to join a class action lawsuit against Customs for searches they endured while traveling through Chicago's O'Hare airport.

Among the GAO report's findings:

  • Only about 3 percent of passengers selected for pat downs and other body searches are found to be carrying contraband.
  • Three quarters of passengers selected for strip searches are innocent.
  • African-American men and women were nearly nine times as likely, and Hispanic-American men and women nearly four times as likely as White-American men and women to be X-rayed, though they were no more likely to be found carrying contraband.
  • African-American women were nearly nine times as likely as White-American women to be X-rayed, even though they were half as likely to be carrying contraband.
  • African-American men were nearly nine times as likely as White-American men to be X-rayed, even though they were no more likely to be carrying contraband.
Senator Durbin found the gender and racial disparities cause for concern.  "The US Customs Service has the difficult responsibility of protecting our borders from the flow of illegal drugs, but the agency also is responsible for providing the most dignified treatment possible for all who pass through their care," Durbin said in a press release this week.

But Durbin also said he was encouraged by the changes Customs has made in the past eighteen months.  "I commend (Customs) Commissioner Ray Kelly for his work to address concerns that have been raised, and I look forward to working with him to ensure no one is stripped of his or her civil rights or dignity by being unfairly selected to be searched by the Customs Service," he said.

According to its own data for the first six months of Fiscal Year 2000, Customs has cut the number of more invasive personal searches, such as X-rays, cavity searches and monitored bowel movements by more than half compared to the same period in FY 1999.  Yet seizures as a result of invasive searches have increased by 18 percent over all.  Cavity searches and monitored bowel movements have turned up drugs in every case in which they were used, the report said.  X-rays and body searches found drugs in about half of the cases in which they were used.

"The new statistics indicate that Customs is searching fewer innocent travelers of all races and genders, and more effectively targeting those carrying contraband," said Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly.  Customs credits Kelly's reforms, which include requiring Customs officers to obtain permission from a supervisor before conducting invasive searches, with the improvements.

But civil rights and privacy advocates say the reforms at Customs don't go far enough to protect innocent travelers.  Gregory Nojeim, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Week Online that too many innocent travelers are still being stopped and frisked or subjected to more invasive searches.  "Customs' solutions to these problems has been completely inadequate," Nojeim said.  "It's answer has been to turn pat downs into electronic body scans.  This is not an advantage to passenger privacy, nor an advantage to passenger quality."

The body scanning devices, installed last year at six US international airports, project a naked image of a passenger's body onto a screen where same-sex officers can look for drugs or weapons.  Customs considers the scanners to be on a par with a pat down or frisk, and have ordered them installed at 20 more airports this year.

In addition, Nojeim said, Customs had asked for regulations requiring a judicial magistrate to sign off on strip searches, but has since backed off that request.  "Customs now requires forced strip searches without any judicial intervention whatsoever.  To fail to address this is to guarantee that strip searches of innocent people will continue to occur."

Meanwhile, Senator Durbin plans to introduce a Reasonable Search Standards Act which will prohibit Customs from profiling travelers based upon race, religion, gender or national origin.  In addition, the bill would require Customs to keep detailed records of searches, and to submit annual reports of the data to Congress.  This would help to "make sure that (recent Customs reforms are) a permanent policy that lives beyond Kelly and this particular report," Durbin told the Washington Post.

Nojeim said the ACLU supports Durbin's legislation, but wants to see more.  "Additional legislation should be introduced to protect everyone by reducing the likelihood that Customs will continue its practice of searching mostly innocent people," he said.

GAO reports can be found online at  US Customs is on the web at  The ACLU has launched an Internet-based privacy campaign.  You can learn more about it at

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Issue #133, 4/14/00 Canadian Senate Calls for Study of Drug Policy | Report Says Customs Targeted Black Women for Drug Searches, Customs Says Recent Reforms Are Working | House Approves Compromise Forfeiture Reform Bill | Dorothy Gaines Clemency Petition | The Corner to Premiere on HBO this Sunday | Pain Update | Job Opportunities in Harm Reduction

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