THE MAGAZINE

Assessing Threats from Passengers

By Robert Elliott

Airports in Miami, Boston, Minneapolis, and elsewhere train personnel of all stripes how to spot suspicious conduct by passengers.

The first passenger killed by air marshals since a crackdown on security following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was Rigoberto Alpizar, a 44-year-old Florida resident who died under a hail of nine bullets in December 2005. Alpizar had bolted from an American Airlines flight awaiting takeoff at Miami-Dade airport, claiming he was carrying a bomb. A victim of bipolar disorder who had missed his monthly appointment with a psychiatrist, Alpizar had sat stewing in his seat, “crazy looking” with “bulging, very wide-open eyes,” according to remarks a fellow passenger made to news media.

Airport personnel trained to spot erratic behavior would have understood those signs, says Rafi Ron, former head of security at Israel’s main airport, the Ben Gurion airfield in Tel Aviv. Ron’s Behavioral Pattern Recognition (BPR) program, which teaches how to spot odd conduct, has since been adopted at Miami-Dade and airports in Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and San Francisco.

Currently, “airport security is being done on a purely technological basis in terms of checking for weapons or devices,” says Ron, who is now president of New Age Security Solutions in Maryland. “The BPR is there to detect suspicious individuals based on their behavior.”

Unlike the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program which is being introduced at airfields by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Ron’s program training is being given to all personnel in the spot-checking process, from parking attendants to flight attendants.

These employees are given about four hours of training to make them aware of what to look for and where to report suspicious persons or behavior. They are encouraged to speak up and are assured they will not be criticized even if their hunches regarding anomalies are wrong.

Though all staff are involved, it is the law enforcement officers (LEOs) working at the airport who get the most extensive training because they are the backbone of the program. Unlike security guards, TSA screeners, and airport security, LEOs can legally use force and make arrests.

They go through an intensive five-day training program containing various elements. Among the key facets of the training are targeted conversation—a milder version of traditional law enforcement interview techniques focused on terrorist threats; immediate tactical response—or how to take control of another person’s movements in a nonlethal way to prevent them from triggering a device; and subject and suspicious-object handling, which helps to train personnel on when a bomb squad should be called.

After classroom instruction, the officers do four hours of on-the-job training with experienced personnel. The best of the trainees are enlisted to teach their methods to newcomers with the help of a training kit.

The crux of the program is that terrorists are human and give their motives away via stress-induced behavior. Often they are first-timers with no prior record of illicit activity, and they are aware that they will probably lose their lives in the attack.

“Their ability to contain their stress or excitement is low,” says Ron. “You can note movements or actions that are relevant only to someone who has something burning under his head.”

Likewise, before the actual staging of the attack, there are certain tactics and information-gathering methods known to terrorists that can be spotted by an educated observer. “Attacks follow a stage of information collection, which is characterized by certain patterns not typical for people at an airport,” says Ron.

Finally, there are distinct behavioral differences in people concealing something on their body, reflected in their style of dress or the way they walk.

Although airports are the major installations targeted by BPR, the system can be employed in other facilities, such as shopping malls, major office complexes, and compounds. It is being used in London on the Heathrow Airport express train, and at the University of Maryland for campus and sporting event security.

At the domestic airfields where it has been incorporated, arrests of criminals have gone up, says Ron.

And it helps not just with thwarting terrorism but with detecting ordinary crime as well. At Miami-Dade, Sergeant Kevin Dougherty says that “walkaway” crimes of opportunity, such as theft of foodstuffs and souvenirs, dropped 25 percent year-on-year in the four months following the February 2006 implementation of BPR.

Dougherty, who works in the Miami-Dade Police Department’s airport district, says 25 of the 158 airport LEOs have been trained in the methodology so far. “It has been effective,” he says. “Our ultimate goal is to train every officer who works at the airport.”

Besides thefts, Dougherty says that other more insidious crimes at Miami-Dade have been stymied. In a scene right out of the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” one man was caught trying to impersonate a pilot; officers noted that his behavior didn’t match up with the normal behavior of the real flyboys.

Another passenger was collared using a fake Nepalese passport he had bought in New York City for $100. He attracted surveillance after paying for his ticket at the counter with cash and acting skittish. “Very often people are nervous for different reasons—maybe traveling with false documents, or a fraudulently obtained airline ticket,” says Dougherty. “The benefits of BPR are to help our officers discern the unusual from the usual.”

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