Passengers sometimes feel insulted Customs at BWI faces difficult task

November 09, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

With a practiced confidence, the U.S. customs inspector moves his hands through the open suitcase, uprooting stacks of carefully packed clothing and feeling for contraband like a doctor in search of a tumor.

As quickly as the clothes are disturbed, they're snatched up by their owner and stuffed impatiently back into place.

"Are you carrying any edibles?" the inspector asks her politely.

"No!" snaps the Air Jamaica passenger, just arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport from Montego Bay. "How many times do I have to answer that question?"

Undaunted, the inspector ventures another query. But, instead of an answer, he gets his question back in his face.

"How about you?" the passenger asks. "Have you ever traveled outside the U.S. before?" The inspector has her passport in his hand, she protests, and can surely see that she has been abroad before.

Afterward, she grumbles.

"I think the search is humiliating, and I think they search blacks more than whites, and they ought to get their act together," said Bernetta Taylor, 46, a certified public accountant in Baltimore, who is black. "When they found I was traveling alone, they got even more interested."

Such pique, born partly of fatigue and the unaccustomed invasion of privacy, is familiar to the 54 Customs Service inspectors who scrutinized 260,000 arriving passengers at BWI last year.

And, she was right

"Actually, she was right," admitted Chief Inspector Will Somers, who supervised the inspections of Ms. Taylor's Air Jamaica flight.

Although the three passengers searched before Ms. Taylor were white, blacks on Air Jamaica flights do get close attention, he said. But inspectors say it's chiefly because of their eating habits, not their race.

More frequently than any other group, the inspectors say, Jamaicans and their family members carry their island cuisine with them -- es

pecially mangoes, yams, sugar cane, thyme and fresh meats. They're prohibited items because they often carry a variety agricultural pests.

Passengers traveling alone get closer scrutiny, too, Mr. Somers said, because they're statistically more likely to be smugglers.

And when customs inspectors ask people if they've traveled abroad before, it's a question designed to verify what the inspectors have already learned, and perhaps to catch a criminal in a lie.

"People really don't understand what we're doing," he said. "People who violate the law don't wear signs. They look like everybody else. They're not going to tell us if they're doing wrong, so we have to check their veracity."

Then again, some of the anger at the baggage tables is a deliberate attempt to fluster and distract the inspectors.

"Some of the people come on very strong," said the veteran inspector who searched Ms. Taylor's bags. He recalled a doctor who expressed particular outrage.

"He was trying to get a sausage past us," said the inspector, who like others interviewed for this article, would not allow his name to be used.

Sausages aren't all the inspectors are watching for. They're also on the lookout for illegal drugs and for undeclared currency, jewelry, liquor or other items on which passengers may owe the government an explanation or additional duties.

They're also watching for fugitives, checking each passenger against a computer database of criminals and known smugglers.

The journeyman customs inspectors who guard Baltimore's gates cover both BWI and the waterfront, as ship and airline traffic demand. They're also responsible for watching Martin State Airport, overseas air cargo, general aviation and any international shipping calling at Annapolis, Crisfield and Cambridge.

"It's frustrating," Mr. Somers said. "Every dyed-in-the-wool customs inspector would want to question everybody and probably physically search most of the people." But the passenger delays would be politically unacceptable and the manpower costs prohibitive.

Flights are ranked

Incoming flights are ranked in a threat assessment drawn from computer analyses of past arrests and seizures. Flights from low-risk countries such as Canada get the fewest inspectors and the least scrutiny. On some days, however, inspectors will search every passenger on every flight.

"The professionals are every bit as sophisticated as we are," Mr. Somers said. "I have no doubt that they study our methods and find ways to go around us. We do know from in

telligence that there was one organization that had a school and trained people what to say to the customs inspector and what not to say."

Increasing numbers of "mules" now swallow drug-filled condoms. Some have even had surgeons implant the drugs in body cavities, he said.

Many others enter the country with less ingenious ploys -- drugs strapped to the body or packed inside carved souvenirs. Most commonly, BWI inspectors find 6-pound to 12-pound packages of marijuana.

For the inspectors -- a varied group ranging from retired police officers and ex-military personnel to liberal arts majors right out of college -- finding the bad guys is an intriguing game of cat and mouse.

Trained in observation and the psychology of lying, they begin sizing up passengers even as they're waiting for luggage at the baggage carousel.

"You get a good chance to see how people move, how they're looking back at us, what kind of bags they're carrying," said one inspector.

"Nervousness by itself would not be reason for a search," Mr. Somers added. "There are a lot of innocent people who just get nervous simply because we wear a badge." On the other hand, many professional smugglers take tranquilizers, and inspectors watch for excessively calm or helpful passengers, too.

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