Saturday, August 13, 2005

Salt Lake Airport an anti-theft model

No baggage screeners arrested for swiping


The police botter on federal airport screeners hasn't instilled much confidence lately.

In New Orleans last year, 13 Transportation Security Administration screeners were arrested for swiping items from bags they checked. A few months later in New York four federal screeners were busted for stealing valuables from suitcases, and Detroit police broke up an electronics theft ring involving a quartet of federal screeners.

Then there's Salt Lake City, where such headlines have been pleasantly lacking.

"We have not had any TSA employees arrested for baggage theft at Salt Lake International," local TSA director Earl Morris said. "It's not to say that it couldn't happen someday, but it has not happened at this point."

Nationally, it's a different story.

All told, 113 federal screeners have been arrested since TSA took over screening duties following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

To fight the problem many airports have installed security cameras to watch screeners in action, and TSA began doing background checks on its screeners.

And TSA officials point out that the number of screeners arrested for theft is a small percentage of TSA's overall work force of 80,000 screeners.

"That is well below one-tenth of 1 percent. It's an extraordinarily low number," TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said.

And in Salt Lake City the chance of an item being stolen during the screening process is almost negligible.

"In Salt Lake City, they've had very few complaints of theft," Harmon said.

But the reason why Salt Lake City has low theft numbers is more difficult to pinpoint. One TSA official who could not be directly quoted noted that Salt Lake City workers do bag checks out on the open because there is room to do screening in the airport's wide halls.

In other airports screening occurs behind the scenes, offering more chances for secrecy and theft.

Harmon and Salt Lake City Department of Airports spokeswoman Barbara Gann, however, downplay that open screening theory.

"I wouldn't know that that would hold a lot of validity," Gann said. "It's all theory."

Gann said it's likely that the airport's "healthy" 54-member police force has more to do with the lack of theft.

In Salt Lake City in the past year, from August 2004 to now, there have been only 18 complaints of theft to airport police. Only four of those 18 complaints were from people who claimed to have things stolen during the screening process.

And in those cases it's difficult to know where exactly the item or items went missing. After TSA screening, a bag is handled by airline employees at various airports as it is shuttled from airplane to baggage claim. It's a long chain that's difficult to trace.

Most of the thefts at Salt Lake City (12 of the 18) occurred when someone left a bag unattended and then never found it again.

Because of the low theft rate, Salt Lake airlines haven't adopted rules that people have to show their bag claim tickets to airline personnel when picking up their checked luggage.

"In general our statistics are always lower than national averages," Gann said. "I think it we were higher, if it were more of an issue, you would see things put in by the airlines like ticket checks at baggage claims."

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