So…I Got Detained By The TSA At The Airport Today

This afternoon I was at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport (BDL)  for the arrival of JetBlue’s first flight to the airport (well not counting the diversions they’ve had to the airport in the past).   When I finished gathering the content I needed on JetBlue’s arrival at the airport I proceeded to exit security and look for some images of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for stories I am writing.

Presently there are no laws or regulations banning the photography of TSA checkpoints from the public areas of the airports. I have written about photography at TSA checkpoints back in April of 2009 here: Photography & TSA Airport Security Checkpoints…Its OK! , with links to actual statements from TSA on their official blog.

While finishing photographing some images of the TSA at the airport a Connecticut State Trooper shouted to me that I needed to stop at the bottom of the escalator and wait for him.   As in all situations with law enforcement, especially in an airport, I stay completely calm and composed, and follow the instructions of the officer.   Failing to obey a police officer’s orders to stop can land anyone in hot water.

Once at the bottom of the escalator at Bradley International Airport’s Terminal A the Connecticut State Trooper, assigned to Troop W, the Troop assigned specifically to the airport, demanded my ID. I asked him if I had done anything illegal … and I was informed that photographing a TSA security checkpoint was illegal, and specifically a ‘Federal Offense.”

I politely (and there has to be a security tape somewhere that shows I was calm at all times) informed the Trooper that the TSA publicly states that photography of checkpoints is legal, with limited restrictions.  I informed the Trooper that I’d be happy to show him the information from the TSA’s website … with that that the Trooper informed me that it was the TSA had requested a Trooper, and he was informed that I was “hiding” and trying to “conceal” my photography of the security area (again, security footage somewhere can show I was in no way hiding or concealing my action). The Trooper went on to say it was the TSA at the airport that let it be known that photography of the checkpoint was illegal and a ‘Federal Offense.’

I asked the Trooper if I was being detained and I was informed that in fact I was being detained and that I was not free to leave the terminal. The Trooper informed me that he was waiting on a representative from the TSA’s Office of Law Enforcement and reiterated that I was in “big trouble.”  Moments later a plain clothes TSA agent, who I had encountered while shooting, but who never identified himself as a TSA agent, approached the Trooper. The TSA agent would not identify himself, or in what capacity he was employed by the TSA  when I enquired… so I was unable to determine if he was a Supervisor in plain clothes or in fact he was from the Office of Law Enforcement.

At this time I began calling the TSA’s Office of Strategic Communications (yes folks … I do keep them on speed dial in my iPhone) and informed them of the situation.

I have previously praised the TSA’s Office of Strategic Communications on this blog, and on Twitter, and will do so again now. The folks in the TSA’s Office of Strategic Communications were immediately attentive to the situation at hand. Calls were returned to me immediately and in fact calls were clearly made to the TSA agent who was handling the situation immediately.

Less than 20 minutes after I was told I was being detained and that I was not free to leave the terminal the TSA agent approached the State Trooper, whispered something in the Trooper’s ear and I was quickly apologized to … with that both the TSA agent and the Trooper quickly leaving me alone.

The key to dealing with any of these situations is to stay calm and polite at all times. If you’ve done nothing wrong, stand your ground.  In my case I have the benefit of not only knowing a few of TSA phone numbers … but also being able to contact a number of people within the TSA who are very familiar with me.

While many would use this incident to complain and cry bloody murder … I am going to go the other way.   I encountered front line security and law enforcement that do not know what the rules are pertaining to photography of TSA security checkpoints.   The TSA has 43,000+ TSA Transportation Security Officers, and approximately 10,000 additional personnel within the agency … rules and regulations regarding photography probably come up pretty rarely. In the scheme of things, photography is a minor issue in relation to everything the TSA handles on a daily basis.

So rather than complain or call for some protest or public out cry … I’d rather use this experience to suggest a furthering an open line of communication with the TSA regarding the education and training of staff regarding what is and is not allowed to occur around a TSA screening checkpoint.   I know I am not the first photographer to encounter problems photographing TSA operations … I am sure I won’t be the last.

Today’s incident for me also underscores the need for some common sense options when approaching people that TSA agents want to speak with. There is no need to put everyone on the defense. When the State Trooper and TSA agent indicated that I had been hiding or attempting to conceal what I was doing I asked them to please describe to me how I was doing being evasive.  I was informed that it was “observed by TSOs.”

To put this in perspective, I was working at all times within 2 to 4 feet of the security boundary. The equipment I was shooting with consisted of two full-size Canon EOS 5D/Mk II bodies with grips, the Canon 16-35f2.8 and primarily the roughly 12″ long Sigma 120-300f2.8, both wrapped in flamingo pink tape … with the rest of my gear being worn on my chest in a Think Tank Photo Skin Kit.   It is quite hard to conceal what you’re doing in an airport with a foot-long lens up to your eye that is wrapped in 2-inch wide flamingo pink tape.

I didn’t argue this point with the TSA agent or Trooper … but this really exemplifies the divide many travelers feel they have with the TSA. The TSA is a massive agency that many see as intrusive and that feeling comes in large part due to a lack of transparency.

An open dialog and an internal culture shift away from the Us-vs-Them mentality can greatly enhance the relationship the TSA has with the public.

Quite honestly reflecting back on what occurred earlier today … I am not surprised I was approached. TSA screeners and law enforcement should be vigilant … but I am shocked I was told that I was being detained and that I was not free to leave the terminal.

So if the TSA wants to chat about ideas for helping further the education of front line security, both TSA agents and the airport based police departments they work with, I’d welcome that opportunity.

There is enough false information regarding TSA policies available in the media and online. Incorrect information, especially regarding “federal offenses” does not need to be perpetuated by direction interaction between the public and those enforcing airport security.

Happy Flying!



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