TSA Makes Improvements to Get Out of Hairy Mess

May 13, 2015
Novella Coleman

Page Media

Woman going through airport security

We are happy to report that the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has begun taking steps to prevent and address the unnecessary and humiliating hair pat-downs black female travelers have been subjected to for quite a while now. 

Earlier this year, I shared my experiences and that of my client, Malaika Singleton, Ph.D. In my case, a TSA agent suddenly grabbed my hair without any warning and squeezed it from top to bottom after I had passed through the advanced imaging technology (AIT) body scanner at the airport. But this did not happen to me just once. In fact, I was selected for hair pat-downs during three out of four trips I took over just one year.  

Unfortunately, these hair pat-downs are part of a disturbing trend of unwarranted and racially discriminatory hair searches targeting black female passengers. In response, the ACLU of Northern California (ACLU-NC) filed complaints with TSA in which we identified the serious constitutional implications of subjectively treating black women’s hair as a threat to national security simply for being different (not to mention the time and resources wasted on screening people based on things that have nothing to do with airport security). 

As a result, the ACLU-NC and TSA entered into an agreement to help protect against implicit and overt racial biases during airport screenings. TSA’s Office of Civil Rights & Liberties agreed to conduct trainings with a special emphasis on hair pat-downs of African American passengers for TSA employees. The agency conducted a series of trainings for supervisors and managers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) late last month.

I was invited to the first series of trainings at LAX, which was meant to give officers clarity on TSA procedures for hair pat-downs and to make sure that all passengers are treated fairly and with respect, regardless of how they wear their hair.

Based on the feedback provided by me and other attendees of the LAX training, the training will be modified and rolled out to all TSA-secured airports throughout the country. 

In my experience, there are ways to screen for potential threats to airport security without taking such a hands-on approach to passengers’ hair. After the training, I took a flight out of LAX and had to pass through the airport’s security screening. When the AIT body scanner triggered, the TSA officer explained to me that the highlighted area was detecting my hair. Rather than grabbing my hair, she asked to me lift it up so she could conduct a pat-down search of the area underneath. I obliged and she found nothing, allowing me to continue on my way with my hair still intact.

In addition, TSA’s Office of Civil Rights & Liberties agreed to track hair pat-downs throughout the country to assess whether a discriminatory impact may be occurring at a specific location. 

However, in order to ensure this discriminatory practice is eliminated, it is important that passengers file a complaint when they are subjected to discriminatory treatment by TSA agents.

Has this happened to you?

If you think you have been targeted for an unwarranted and racially discriminatory hair search, you can file a complaint online or via email to TSA-CRL@tsa.dhs.gov and CRCLCompliance@hq.dhs.gov. To help make sure your complaint is thoroughly investigated, it is best to file a complaint as soon as possible after the incident.

Your input is critical to holding TSA accountable and ensuring that TSA treats all passengers with dignity and respect. After all, traveling is already stressful enough without having a stranger squeeze your hair.

Novella Coleman is a staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.