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At risk at Logan

ALAWSUIT filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts should put Massport and the State Police on notice of the need to sharpen their focus on constitutional protections and police training at Logan Airport.

In October 2003, State Police detained King Downing, a bearded African-American man who was speaking on a pay phone in a public terminal. Downing, who happens to be the national coordinator of the ACLU's campaign against racial profiling, "respectfully declined" to comply with police demands for identification, according to the suit. He provided identification after being threatened with arrest. Downing now seeks monetary damages and -- of critical importance to the public -- challenges the constitutionality of security screening procedures at Logan Airport, citing the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

The Massachusetts State Police have taken the national lead in the implementation of a "behavior pattern recognition" system, which requires officers to focus on suspicious or irregular behaviors that could indicate hostile intentions. Such behaviors could be as obvious as loitering or as seemingly innocuous as using a pay phone. Troopers are supposed to be trained in follow-up conversational techniques aimed at determining whether a subject requires further scrutiny.

The suit alleges that the police did not question Downing about his flight plans, his reason for being at the airport, or any other significant factor. If true, it is hardly surprising that Downing and the ACLU conclude that the inquiry was an example of racial profiling.

The incident suggests a failure in implementation, not necessarily a flaw in the security policy itself. Behavior pattern recognition was adopted at Logan in part to allay fears about racial profiling by focusing on behavior, not race or ethnicity. Implemented properly, the system should also reinforce the "reasonable suspicion" standards accepted by the courts. A policy that provides a specific list of suspicious behaviors helps judges in determining whether law enforcement has met those standards.

Even the state's leading researcher on racial profiling warns against losing faith in behavior pattern recognition over this single complaint.

"Should an incident that may have been handled poorly result in the rejection of a policy that may not be perfect but is moving in the right direction?" asks Jack McDevitt, associate dean of the Northeastern College of Criminal Justice.

Still, Massport and the State Police cannot use security concerns as an excuse for sloppiness. The local ACLU chapter does not generally bring frivolous suits. The rights group raises the specter of groundless searches by police, which must never be allowed to fly in America. 

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