Who gets searched for drugs? Jamaican detained: Reggae artist's airport experience at BWI part of drug war dilemma.

October 06, 1997

THE LAND OF THE FREE abuses civil liberties to get drugs off the street. That fact of life was harshly revealed to Jamaican musician Peter "Galaxy P" Jackson last week at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He was threatened, strip-searched and hauled off to a hospital for X-rays that might reveal hidden drugs; all because he appeared nervous during questioning by U.S. customs agents. They found nothing.

A presumption of guilt has become standard procedure for law enforcement officials trying to guess who is carrying illegal drugs. They feel their batting average gives credence to the method. But it is unsettling, nonetheless. Too frequently an innocent person, such as Mr. Jackson, is treated like a criminal because of the way he looks or where he comes from.

The U.S. Customs Service admits it sometimes makes a mistake, but firmly insists the ends justify the means. Indeed, arrests for drug smuggling at BWI have increased in the past 11 months. But even with such vigilance, the amount of narcotics flowing into this country from places such as Jamaica remains intolerable. The nation's drug interdiction policies can hardly be called a success.

The Jackson case again raises the question of how much emphasis police should place on "profiling" in trying to figure out who has committed a crime. Customs officials say they don't profile, but they do watch passengers from some flights more closely than others.

The Justice Department says its new computerized passenger screening system will identify security risks without discrimination. But because security rules will prevent discussion of how a particular passenger was selected for questioning or a search, you can expect complaints of bias to continue.

The dilemma posed by profiling will confront America until it solves its drug problem. Innocent people are also being stopped on interstate highways and being patted down on inner-city streets so the guilty may be caught. And they're not caught often enough. The volume of illegal drugs still available suggests it is time to take a different approach.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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