Research

Center’s TSA Study Examines Where Security Meets Society

By Buzz McClain

David L. Weisburd

David L. Weisburd

Mason researchers are taking a look at the security plan used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that describes the methods its agents use to perform everything from searching a purse to clearing a crowded airport terminal.

The tome is called the Playbook, and it’s a vital component to keeping the world’s skies safe.

Researchers from George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP) led by principal investigators David L. Weisburd and Cynthia Lum, were tasked with examining a major aspect of TSA’s security plan. Not only does the $1 million, two-year, four-phase study examine how TSA’s procedures align with research about the effectiveness of security, it also assesses TSA’s relationships with other entities—businesses, law enforcement, airport employees, and passengers, for example—in an effort to prevent crimes large and small and keep air traffic moving safely.

Cynthia Lum

Cynthia Lum

“The main interest in the study has come from DHS wanting to know about the effectiveness and customer impact of homeland security at airports,” says Weisburd, who is the executive director of the center. “I think it’s important to TSA as well. They’re critically interested in knowing if the policies they’re using have an evidence base. That’s why they came to us. It’s part of a general trend in government to use evidence-based policies. We don’t want our institutions using tactics that aren’t proven.”

Studying the Playbook has led to some surprises for the researchers.

“One of the biggest learning points for me is discovering the sociological aspects of security,” says Lum, who directs the center and leads its research program on evidence-based policing with associate professor Christopher Koper.

“It’s not just about, does this metal detector detect a gun?” Lum continues. “It involves organizations and their interactions with each other. It involves different priorities that are set between the airport authority–the business entity of the airport–and law enforcement and security; it involves passengers’ feelings when they’re going through security; it involves individuals and their ideas as to what constitutes security; and it involves the criminals themselves and those who are trying to do wrong.”

“It’s not just about getting screened at the airport,” says CEBCP researcher Devon Johnson. The TSA, she notes, is looking for “a social science perspective and an academic perspective” as to how it operates.

“It goes back to the idea that an airport is a place and a society in itself,” says the center’s deputy director Charlotte Gill, who studies crime prevention. “It’s not just about these individual security measures and how they work, it’s about how it all works together.”

Jennifer Barrett

The TSA, founded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is still a relatively new agency, “and they’re still developing many of their procedures,” says Lum. In the past, the TSA has taken critical hits from the public and Congress for everything from its often-blunt security procedures to its cost-effectiveness.

The Mason study provides the agency and the Department of Homeland Security with a comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the Playbook’s efficacy in preventing crime in the nation’s airports.

One phase of the study examined TSA procedures in light of scientific evaluations, many of them based on pioneering studies about crime at places from previous CEBCP research.

“We’ve compared prevention mechanisms of airport strategies with those of evaluated crime prevention measures that share similar aspects,” says Lum. “Given that there aren’t many rigorous evaluations of the effectiveness of airport security—nor does this project allow us to do such evaluations—comparing aspects of procedures against knowledge of similarly evaluated strategies is one way to estimate and hypothesize about their effectiveness.”

Mason researchers David L. Weisburd and Cynthia Lum often lead briefings on Capitol Hill regarding the center's work. Photo by Creative Services.

Mason researchers David L. Weisburd and Cynthia Lum often lead briefings on Capitol Hill regarding the center’s work. Photo by Creative Services.

Another phase of the study involves site visits and highly detailed surveys of 164 airports as to how they implement the Playbook. “My background is in public perceptions and responses to the criminal justice system,” says Johnson, a specialist in researching public opinion on criminal justice issues. “In this project, I can add my expertise in looking into issues of procedural justice and perceptions of legitimacy and study how the public and the employees who work at the airport view the TSA security operations, as well as how they interact with them.”

CEBCP affiliate scholar Linda Merola brought her background in studying civil liberties to the TSA project. She helped the team examine how passengers were affected by TSA’s processes.

“What are passengers experiencing as they go through security?” Merola asks. “You see very little research at airports from academics. In many cases it’s difficult to get data. Most of what’s available are opinion pieces, or they understudy the topic.”

In fact, Merola says, one of the biggest revelations for her in the course of the study was “how little rigorous evaluation research there is on counterterrorism.

There are only a handful of articles. Very few people try to evaluate or even document counterterrorism interventions.”

For the CEBCP research team, the third phase of the study was the most fascinating. In this phase, they analyzed TSA’s relationships among the various non-TSA entities within airports.

“TSA finds itself within an environment that involves business, security, and people, and sometimes the business aspects clash with security aspects,” says Lum. “For example, when something happens on a plane, the whole terminal has to be what they call ‘dumped’—that is, everybody has to leave that terminal and then be checked back in. That can cause incredible delays and costs for airports.

“The business side might say, why do that? If there’s an issue on the plane, just check that plane. In Phase Three of our study, we examined how local law enforcement, the TSA, and business interact to make sure that multiple bottom lines—business, security, and customer rights and relations—are being met.”

“All of those things are interrelated,” says Johnson. “One of the things we know is that when passengers feel like they’re being treated well, when you feel as if police are exercising legitimate authority over you, you’re more likely to cooperate with them, and it makes their law enforcement function easier. We would suspect it’s the same way with airport security. When the passengers feel these agents know what they’re doing and are being respectful, they’ll be more willing to speak up if they see something or follow security commands when necessary.”

The CEBCP researchers know the TSA likely will not announce any changes to their procedures based on the study nor will many of the study’s results be published in peer-reviewed journals when completed in late 2013.

“We’re dealing with a realm where not everything is public knowledge. You won’t know if they’re implementing the policies and practices we suggested because those are not in the public domain,” says Weisburd. “A measure of success will be if DHS and TSA continue with these sorts of programs, to have social scientists and criminologists work with them to improve homeland security.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the 2013 Mason Research.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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