Sunday, December 20, 2009

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

Today’s guest author is Deirdre Walker. She retired recently as the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police. She spent 24 years as a police officer.

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

This is a question I heard many times during my law enforcement career. Often my answer was no. But occasionally it would be “yes,” followed by an admonition to have a good day.

For the last half of my career, I would have documented each interaction, whether or not it involved an arrest. I would have written down the nature and length of the interaction, the gender, race, and age of the person, and the outcome of the contact (arrest, citation, etc.).

I carry the baggage of this history with me as I’ve traveled over the last eight years, mindlessly placing my luggage on the conveyer belt and removing my shoes for TSA inspection.

Recently, something changed.

Within the last few months, I have been singled out for “additional screening” roughly half the time I step into an airport security line. On Friday, October 9, as I stepped out of the full-body scanning device at BWI, I decided I needed more information to identify why it is that I have become such an appealing candidate for secondary screening.

Little did I know this would be only the first of many questions I now have regarding my airport experiences.

Over these last few months, I have grown increasingly frustrated with what I view as an unjustifiable intrusion on my privacy. It was not so much the search (then) as it was the embarrassment of being singled out, effectively being told “You are different,” but getting no explanation as to why.

That frustration has been tempered by a combination of my desire to be a good citizen, and my empathy for the TSA screeners. These folks, after all, are merely doing what we, the American traveling public, have permitted and now expect them to do.

I am left to wonder whether my own passive acceptance of these evolving search procedures has contributed to a potentially fatal dichotomy: what we allow TSA screeners to do in order to maximize efficiency and enhance our perception of safety, or what we really need them to do in order to preserve our rights and dignity and enhance our actual safety.

We have asked TSA to find the tools terrorists use and prevent both from boarding a passenger plane. We have unintentionally created an agency that now seeks efficiency and compliance more than any weapon or explosive.

While returning my computer and shoes to their proper places, I watched the screening line at BWI. I thought about the haphazard events surrounding the security screening process. As I watched the screening officers, I wondered what information drives their decisions. Left only to my observations, I concluded that their decisions were entirely random, and likely based upon three criteria: passenger load, staffing, and whim.

I was left to conclude that I am not screened because I look like a terrorist. I am routinely screened because I look like someone who will readily comply. I decided then that my next invitation to enjoy additional screening would be met with more inquiry.

I did not have wait very long. On my return through Albany to BWI — Surprise! – I got “randomly selected” for additional screening.

This time, I was “invited” to step into one of the explosive detection machines, commonly referred to as a “puffer machine.” The traveller is exposed to short, intense bursts of air, which are then, supposedly, analyzed for trace residue.

I read an article awhile ago that suggested these machines are entirely ineffective. I have subsequently observed that they now sit idle at many airports where they were originally installed (Tampa International, for example). In recently renovated airports (San Jose) they have not been installed. At some other airports (like BWI), they have been replaced by the body-scanning technology.

When notified by the cheerful screener that I had been selected for additional screening (the screener’s tone reminded my of the announcer who tells the contestant that she has just won a TV on the Price is Right), I stepped reluctantly toward the machine and asked her quietly whether I had the right to refuse the search. I did not want to become a spectacle, or have to rent a car and drive back to Maryland.

The screeners face dropped and she appeared stunned, as if my question had been received like a body-blow. She asked me to repeat what I said, and I repeated my inquiry regarding whether or not I had the right to refuse this search, especially since it was my understanding that the equipment did not work. She responded defensively, “It sounds an alarm!”

What followed is what I can only describe as a process that left me with more questions and a hunger for something we need and something that has apparently been missing from TSA procedures since September 12, 2001: Data.

It is, again, important to note my general respect for the front line TSA screeners — with the exception of those screeners who feel that it is necessary to yell at people. In my experience as a cop, as a supervisor and as a manager, I know that yelling at people is the one method guaranteed to ensure sub-par performance and a collapse of any semblance of cooperation.

My motivation to write this piece is first, to vent, but then to take a stab at the windmill that has grown from flawed processes to become a barrier to achieving the real mission and ultimate goal: Passenger safety.

I believe, fundamentally, that our collective compliance with the current screening procedures has served only to undermine TSA, and has denied our screeners the tools they need to correct their course.

After realizing I was serious about refusing to step into the puffer machine, I was told that I would be subjected to a “full-body pat-down” and that all of my “stuff would be fully searched.”

I shrugged and waited while the screeners figured out what to do next. One of the screeners said “Who is the supervisor? Notify a supervisor.” I waited two to three minutes with two female screeners. I was then approached by a uniformed screener and the following exchange took place.

“She refused the puffer. We are supposed to notify a supervisor. You’re a supervisor, right?”

Apparently reminded of his role, the subordinate screener then said “We’re notifying you.” She said nothing further. The supervisor then informed me that if I did not step into the “puffer” I would be subjected to a full body-pat-down, that I would be “wanded” and that all of my belongings would be fully searched by hand.

By this time, my belongings had already passed through the x-ray and sat oddly unattended on the belt. They had aroused no suspicion, either as they passed through the x-ray or as they sat completely unattended. I thought it odd that my initial refusal to be subjected to the ‘puffer’ now rendered the x-ray examination effectively flawed. I was being cajoled and was then offered the opportunity to change my mind, which, again, I thought rather odd. If I posed such a risk by refusing the secondary screening, why would that risk be now mitigated, if only I were to change my mind?

I did not change my mind. So, I stepped between two glass walls and was subjected to what my police training would allow me to conclude was a procedural vacuum.

I had been told repeatedly I would be subjected to a “pat-down.” I correctly suspected otherwise. During the course of my police career, I have conducted many pat-downs on the street. The Supreme Court has described pat downs as a cursory check of the outer clothing of a person by a police officer, upon articulable suspicion that the officer’s safety is at risk of being compromised. My department’s procedure indicated that this pat-down was to be conducted with an open hand, gently patting the outer clothing of an individual, for purposes of officer safety only, with the goal of detecting weapons. In other words, it is not a search.

What happened to me in Albany was not the promised “pat-down.” It was a full search conducted in full public view. It was also one of the most flawed searches I have ever witnessed.

From the outset, it was very clear that the screener would have preferred to be anywhere else. She acted as if she was afraid of me, though given that I had set myself apart as apparently crazy, perhaps I cannot blame her. With rubber-gloved hands she checked my head, my arms, my legs, my buttocks (and discovered a pen that had fallen into one of my pockets) and even the bottom of my feet. Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.

Here was a big problem: an effective search cannot nod to decorum.

These three areas on a woman, and the crotch area of men, offer the greatest opportunity to seclude weapons and contraband. Bad guys and girls rely on the type of reluctance displayed by this screener to get weapons and drugs past the authorities. We train cops to realize that their life depends upon the ability to compartmentalize any apprehension about the need to lift and separate. Fatal consequences can and do result when officers fail to detect a secreted weapon which is later used against them.

At the Albany airport, I was left to wonder what kind of training the screener received. I was forced to conclude the answer might be “none.” At a minimum, she needs re-training, assuming there is any policy or training that governs searches. Further, after being repeatedly informed that I would be “wanded” by the metal detector in addition to the ‘pat-down,’ I was not.

Had I actually intended to move contraband past the screening point, my best strategy would have been to refuse secondary screening.

I am also forced to conclude that the purpose of the “pat-down” was not to actually interdict contraband. In my case, I believe I was subjected to a haphazard response in order to effectively punish me for refusing secondary screening and to encourage a different decision in the future.

All of this is admittedly subjective, based on my perceptions at the time. What is also entirely subjective is identifying which travelers are selected for secondary screening.

This is where I find myself now obsessing over TSA policy, or its apparent lack. Every one of us goes to work each day harboring prejudice. This is simply human nature. What I have witnessed in law enforcement over the course of the last two decades serves to remind me how active and passive prejudice can undermine public trust in important institutions, like police agencies. And TSA.

Over the last fifteen years or so, many police agencies started capturing data on police interactions. The primary purpose was to document what had historically been undocumented: informal street contacts. By capturing specific data, we were able to ask ourselves tough questions about potentially biased-policing. Many agencies are still struggling with the answers to those questions.

Regardless, the data permitted us to detect problematic patterns, commonly referred to as passive discrimination. This is a type of discrimination that occurs when we are not aware of how our own biases affect our decisions. This kind of bias must be called to our attention, and there must be accountability to correct it.

One of the most troubling observations I made, at both Albany and BWI, was that — aside from the likely notation in a log (that no one will ever look at) — there was no information captured and I was asked no questions, aside from whether or not I wanted to change my mind.

Given that TSA interacts with tens if not hundreds of millions of travelers each year, it is incredible to me that we, the stewards of homeland security, have failed to insist that data capturing and analysis should occur in a manner similar to what local police agencies have been doing for many years.

Some might argue that the potential for intrusion is not the same between police and TSA. I believe my experience this past weekend demonstrates otherwise. Currently, there is no way to know whether a certain male screener routinely identifies predominantly women for additional screening. There is no way to identify whether a Latino screener routinely isolates African-Americans, or vice versa. To assert that the screeners are highly trained and do not engaged in this type of discrimination, whether passive or active, is unsupportable because there is no data. You simply cannot solve problems that you do not want to identify.

Finally, I am most concerned about the “random” nature of my repeated selection for secondary screening. If there is no discrimination at work, and my selection is entirely random, then we have yet another, and probably more significant problem.

For years in policing, we relied on random patrols to curb crime. We relied upon this “strategy” until someone went out and captured some data, and did a study that demonstrated conclusively that random patrols do not work (Kansas City Study).

As police have employed other types of “random” interventions, as in DWI checkpoints, they have had to develop policies, procedures and training to ensure that the “random” nature of these intrusions is truly random. Whether every car gets checked, or every tenth car, police must demonstrate that they have attempted to eliminate the effects of active and passive discrimination when using “random” strategies. No such accountability currently exists at TSA.

As I left the screening check point in Albany, I looked over a few feet and observed an elderly Asian couple talking to “my” supervisor. I unashamedly eavesdropped.

I heard the man say that his wife had not been told that the machine would blow air and that she had been quite startled. The woman said she should have been informed and the supervisor agreed. He said he would speak to the screener (but again, who knows whether he actually did).

Then the man said “And she should have been told she can refuse.” The bells in my head were deafening.

I believe what we have here is the beginning of the end of complacency. It is now apparent to me that in the haste to ensure compliance with procedures that are inconsistent if not inarticulable, TSA has hastened the likelihood of failure. If we do not insist that TSA work to create articulable policies that make sense, procedures that are explicit and consistent and training that supports both, then we are complicit in what will inevitably be an ultimate compromise of TSA.

That compromise may come in the form of terrorist attack, or it may come in the form of a collapse of public support. Either or both are inevitable. Either or both are preventable.

"I'll have a bowl now - and a bowl to go please." (Pic)

Seven Things You Didn't Know About the 2010 Tesla Roadster

By John Voelcker's avatar John VoelckerJohn Voelcker

Tesla Roadster as used by videogame designers

Tesla Roadster as used by videogame designers

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times. Enter now!

Well, maybe you actually knew some of these seven if you're a true Tesla enthusiast. But we bet you didn't know every single one ...


What are OrbSeals, you ask? Why, they're special pellets pumped into the side rail of the Tesla chassis. When they're heat-treated, they expand in volume 50 times, to absorb noise and vibration.

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

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2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

Enlarge Photo
2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

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It was the very first production car to use lithium-ion cells*, which pack roughly twice the energy into a given mass as do the nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in almost every hybrid car for the last dozen years. More energy = more power = more driving fun. Case closed.

# 5: TAKE 6,831 CELLPHONES AND ...

Those lithium-ion cells? The Tesla Roadster uses exactly 6,831 of 'em inside a big black battery pack that weighs 900 pounds. Unlike other electric cars that use larger lithium cells specially designed for auto use, Tesla bases its battery on "commodity cells" that are made by the millions and power such mundane items as mobile phones and laptop computers.

The plus: They're cheap, they're readily available, and they're a very well-known quantity.

The minus: It takes a hellacious amount of of wiring, cooling, instrumentation, control software, and safety features to ensure that even if one of them short-circuits, the others don't.


The algorithm that calculates the state of charge of the battery pack--a very important number, since that's what gives you the "range remaining" number--in each individual Tesla keeps learning and gets more accurate over time, by comparing its calculations to the actual behavior of the pack as it discharges.


A lot of enthusiasts don't realize that the Tesla's body panels are made of carbon fiber. You know, the lightweight, ultra-strong material used in fighter jets and other very fast moving objects.


Sure, you can use the Tesla touchscreen to select the software mode for "Performance". But there's also a cool trick that only the Tesla cognoscenti know: Turn the key one extra click, any time, at rest or on the move, and it's on. Instantly. Which is very handy for those last-minute stop-light drag races with annoying Porsche owners who think electric power is for wussies.


Even if the company were to vanish in a puff of dust tomorrow, Tesla's place in history would be secure.

Why? Because it accomplished something that a century of hapless green-car enthusiasts never quite managed: It got rid of the tiny, geeky, golf-cart image that came to mind every time someone said the words "electric vehicle".

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How To D*Face A Skate Pool With A Thousand Skulls


In counter-cultural urban expression, there’s nothing more sublime than the sight of a skater achieving near weightlessness as they rip into a vertical transition before flying off the coping into thin air, clutching their board, while the concrete space from which they soared awaits their return. Ever since the early ’70s, when a legacy of past masters carved an ineffaceable groove in the concrete landscape with nothing but a plank and four wheels beneath their feet, the drained swimming pool has held a special place inside the ribcage of the street skater.

Environmental Graffiti talked to London-based street artist D*Face fresh from his return from painting an abandoned swimming pool for skateboarders in California.


Ramp skating may win more prizes, it may even hit greater heights, but riding the beautifully curved 1950s pools of San Bernadino – aka the ‘Badlands’ – is skating to the core, harking back to the early days when air was first caught and bones first broken. D*Face recently took a trip to the skate community where it all started to paint the perfect pool.

Inspired by skate graphics and the street art scene that spawned him, D*Face helped create a skater’s dream spot with his design for a pool dubbed ‘Ridiculous’ by the guys who discovered it, MTV host Peter King and legendary skateboarder Steve Alba. The slightly cryptic name is a marker of its ridiculously perfect shape and curvature, from a skater’s point of view.


San Bernadino was hit hard by the economic slump and subprime mortgage fiasco, so many of its properties have been left vacant. This gave the skating community the chance to mark their turf on an abundance of abandoned swimming pools – echoing the era when Alba and others took their hardcore style to the pools following the 1970s drought in Southern California.

The invitation to paint ‘Ridiculous’ was put out by MTV, but if that makes this sound more commercial than it perhaps should, remember that the guys who found it could, in theory, have been arrested for this stunt. And look no further than D*Face’s skull designs, hundreds of which litter the pool basin, to see that this is a graphic artist doing what comes naturally to him – and an artist who loves skating.


D*Face was, in the vernacular, stoked to paint the pool and realise a dream of visiting the traditional Mecca of all skate scenes, where his early interest in the relationship between art and skateboarding first came alive – even if he was just a little too young to know it at the time. Nourished by a passion for hip-hop and punk music, cartoon animation and of course street art, his style fitted the bill well.

Asked how his art interacts with skating and the skate aesthetic in his painting for ‘Ridiculous’, D*Face told EG:

“I guess because my work can be seen in the public domain, for free, by any passers-by, and uses elements of repetition to build awareness and subversion and shock to provoke reaction. Skateboarders I believe are a different breed. They pay attention to the environment that surrounds them, they are often chased off spots they’re illegally skating, so there’s a synergy between my work, skateboarders and skateboarding.”


“The Ridiculous pool was slightly different in as much as I hadn’t seen the actual pool before, so only had a very vague idea of the size. Also it was going to be ridden by skaters who hadn’t seen or weren’t necessary familiar with my work, so I wanted to produce a piece that had instant appeal and impact and would tessellate, enabling me to cover as much or as little of the pool as time allowed and to allow me to work with the natural flow and line of the pool that the skaters ride.”

“Skulls or more importantly death plays a significant part in my work. It’s also something synonymous with skateboarding and skateboard art, so the idea was to cover the pool with over a 1000 life size skulls in various shades, as a tribute to the fallen skaters and past masters.”


“My work in the public domain is also ephemeral, subject to ever changing elements, both natural and human. Much like the graphics on a skateboard they’re only temporary. As soon as the boards are ridden they start to decay and take on their own life. The same can be said for my work in the street. It’s this natural element of weathering and ageing that is beautiful and brings a new life to the piece. The exact same effect applies to the Ridiculous pool. It wasn’t complete until it had been skated hard. The lines, scrapes and scuffs that run through the painting bring a whole new life and texture to the pool that would be impossible to replicate.”


And what about the history of his love for skating? D*Face told us:

“Skateboarding changed my life. I was never the academic kid and didn’t take particularly well to the education system, so I looked to other means of ‘education’ and found what I can only describe as the manuals to my life; Subway Art, Spraycan Art and Thrasher Magazine.”

“I used to get Thrasher from the older kids at school, around ‘82 – ‘89. Those magazines and books were like eye candy to a visually starving child, particularly the adverts in Thrasher for various skate brands’ boards. Those struck me hard. I didn’t know who or how you’d get to create such amazing artworks to grace the bottom of a skateboard, that was essentially then going to get ruined, but they had a profound influence on my work. I later came to find out the skate artwork that I was particularly inspired by was by Jim Philips and Vernon Johnson.”


“I skated my teenage years away and at a time where skateboarding was seen as an outcasts’ thing to do. We had to be resourceful in finding spots to skate, particularly as England was decades behind the USA in building actual skate parks, so skateboarding taught me to look at the city differently – you know, what had been designed as an architectural feature became a skate-able object. This looking differently at our public domain is a key factor in my work now as an artist. A blank wall with high visibility becomes a prime canvas to display artwork on.”

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And finally, were there any other incentives for this gig? D*Face:

“Meeting Steve ‘Salba’ Alba who is a pool skating legend and a skater I’ve admired since a child. He’s a regular at the Ridiculous Pool, in fact the area San Bernardino where the pool is located is nicknamed Salba Land as he’s skated so many pools in that area. Also getting to fulfill a childhood dream of hopping backyards to skate pools with Salba and Peter King and watching amazing skaters session the pool was incentive enough.”

D*Face finally completed his creation after four, marathon 17-hour days of painting. As the sun set on the fourth day, over 100 skaters led by Steve Alba dropped in on the vertical backyard slopes, grinding the proverbial icing into D*Face’s creative cake: interactive street-art done good. Would other legends from back in the day have enjoyed the show? Only if they’d have been the ones to break in first.

With special thanks to D*Face for taking the time to answer our questions.

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