TAMPA, Fla. — Airport security officer Ricky McCoy has heard the jokes: What does TSA stand for? "The Sexual Assailants."
TSA officers report being punched, kicked and shoved during pat-downs, and say one woman headbutted a screener who was searching her laptop. They are being called molesters and ordered not to touch "my junk." And while they know the new searches are more invasive, officers want Thanksgiving travelers to keep in mind they are just doing their jobs to make flying safe.
"We just want the public to understand that we're not perverts, we're not sexual assailants," said McCoy, who heads a local TSA union for Illinois and Wisconsin.
TSA chief John Pistole has heard the complaints and seemed more open to trying to balance safety with invading people's privacy with the pat-downs.
"We are exploring again ways that they might be less invasive and yet with the same outcomes in terms of detection, but that is really the challenge that we have and that dynamic tension between security and privacy and reasonable people can disagree as to exactly where that blend is as it relates to you as a passenger," Pistole told reporters Tuesday.
To be sure, most passengers are docile when going through an airport's security checkpoint, though McCoy said the atmosphere has changed in the past two weeks.
Once instance came when McCoy explained the search to a passenger.
"The guy looked me straight in the face and said, 'I don't know what I might do to you if you touch me,'" said McCoy.
McCoy stared the man down and told the passenger that touching an officer would be the worst mistake he's ever made because authorities would be called. The search went smoothly.
The collective unease over possible invasions of privacy, intimate touching and general discomfort have led to a near-instant backlash. The Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is planning to distribute flyers to passengers explaining their rights at checkpoints.
News stories and videos of disabled passengers and children being screened aggressively haven't helped.
The nation also has paused to laugh. After all, this is the news story that spawned the phrase: "Don't touch my junk."
Those words were made famous a week ago by a Southern California man who uttered them to a TSA officer while capturing the verbal showdown on his iPhone. A Google search of the phrase on Tuesday registered 4.2 million hits.
The new pat-downs began about a month ago, and early on, an officer was assaulted. Since the story made headlines, McCoy said officers at least six times have been punched, pushed or shoved after they explained what would be happening.
He blamed TSA for the uproar, saying the agency didn't reach out to passengers enough.
"We have major problems because basically TSA never educated the public on what was going on," McCoy said.
One passenger in Indianapolis was arrested after the person assaulted a security officer, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
TSA officers have received eight to 12 hours of training on the pat-down procedure, Koshetz said. Training on the scanning machines is a three-day process that requires on-the-job training. She said the agents must pass tests each year and requalify for their jobs.
Despite the occasional outburst, many passengers are forgiving.
"I personally wouldn't want to be patted down," said 29-year-old Relana McGlothan, an Army reservist from Orlando who had a layover Tuesday in Atlanta on her way to Raleigh, N.C. "But I think the security people are just doing their jobs."
Valyria Lewis, a screener and president of a local union, says most passengers are cooperative.
"We braced for that, but that's not what we've seen," said Lewis, who heads the local that covers Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina. "There's no resistance there. We're seeing a totally different thing than what we're seeing in the media."
Still, passengers can avoid hassles. Koshetz suggested leaving items like phones, belts and heavy jewelry in their carry-ons, then taking them out after going through security. Chances of getting a pat-down increase if people set off the metal detector, she said.
The TSA also added that people traveling for Thanksgiving cannot bring certain tasty items aboard: cranberry sauce, maple syrup, and creamy dips and spreads should be put in checked bags or left at home.
You can always decline the pat-down — though that means you don't fly. But Cris Soulia, a TSA officer in San Diego and president of the local union, said the screening process really only takes seconds.
He usually talks to people throughout the process to put them at ease, though it doesn't always work.
One passenger who opted out the other day explained that he is a surgeon and is exposed to X-rays all day at work. Another promised to make things difficult because he disagreed with the pat-downs.
"I told him getting mad at me is not going to help things because I'm not a policy maker," Soulia said. "... I don't take it personal. After eight, nine years of this, I've developed a thick skin."
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