Polls find that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is one of the least popular agencies in government, ranking down in the depths of hell with the IRS. Passengers complain about rude treatment, inflexible rules, long lines and seemingly illogical and inconsistent policies. One thing they don't tend to take issue with, however, is the uniforms. They don't say things like, "Please make the screeners look more like real police."
But that is exactly what the TSA is doing, outfitting frontline employees with new gold badges and royal-blue shirts as part of a broader effort to improve their image and make people, to put it bluntly, hate them less. The idea for the new badge and uniform came from an advisory council of TSA workers in the field. "We definitely wanted to change from the white shirts [which had an embroidered badge sewn onto the fabric]," says Stephanie Naar, a TSA employee who has worked at Reagan National Airport for over three years. "We wanted to have, I don't want to say more authority, but a more professional look to upgrade our image."
The move has some scientific evidence to back it. Psychologists who have researched the effects of official-looking uniforms and badges find that they do indeed tend to make people more compliant. "Our research shows that people respect individuals who wear uniforms, and do what they say," says Brad J. Bushman, a professor who studies aggression at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. In two studies conducted in the 1980s, Bushman found that people were much more likely to follow the orders of a person with a uniform and a badge than the direction of someone in regular clothing.
The uniform can also change the person wearing it. Bushman predicts that the new TSA uniforms may make screeners behave in a more dignified and authoritative manner. They may demand more of people, he says. And people can be expected to submit at least a little more readily.
Screeners at Reagan National Airport began wearing their new badges and shirts to work this week, and I can report that they do look a lot more like police officers in Pleasantville. The shirts are a shade more vivid than actual police-officer uniforms, the badges a bit more sparkly. So far, both passengers and screeners seemed pleased with the new Homeland Security style. "It looks more professional," said Michele Bledsoe, who had just flown to Washington from Kansas City, Mo. "I didn't like those white shirts," said her friend Anita Brown. "They looked dirty."
By the end of the year, all 43,000 screeners should have the new uniforms, which cost a total of $12 million. But first they will have to complete two days of mandatory additional training, focused on how to "calm" the environment. They will be encouraged to use new wireless communication devices, so they won't have to shout at one another to come check some poor sap's bag. They will also participate in mock scenarios to learn how to defuse conflict.
The word Calm is used a lot these days at the TSA, usually as a verb. People, checkpoints, airport ... you need to be calmed. The new checkpoint at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which features pastel light panels and supposedly soothing music, is part of this effort, as are modest steps toward more transparency through new features like a TSA blog.
The intent of these efforts is not just to make the experience more pleasant, however, but also to make it more obvious who is nervous, twitchy and angry to make it easier to spot a terrorist, in other words. Until now, the TSA had managed to make a lot of us act like terrorists at checkpoints, which made behavioral profiling a bit tricky.
Passengers are already made to feel vulnerable at airport checkpoints: there we stand, shoeless and beltless, clutching our boarding passes, waiting to be summoned through the pearly metal detector. Screeners can effectively determine whether we will make our flights or miss them. It hardly seems like the power dynamic is skewed toward the passenger right now.
But some TSA employees feel that screeners do not get the respect they deserve. The new uniform and flashy badge will foster more respect, they hope, and thus improve morale within the ranks. "How people perceive us has a lot to do with how we perceive ourselves," says TSA employee Naar. "[Now] everyone feels that they look sharp, and they are very proud."
So far, the biggest complaint about the new uniforms has come from real police officers, who fear that giving TSA screeners badges might confuse the public into thinking the airport personnel are police officers. A former Kansas City International Airport police officer remembers pulling over a TSA screener for speeding on airport property. The screener tried to talk his way out of the ticket by showing the officer a cloth TSA badge, which he kept in his wallet. "They'd start the whole brotherhood thing, thin blue line, and all of that. I'm like, 'You got two weeks of training. I went to 22 weeks of the police academy. Sign here.'"
Screeners are not supposed to flash their badges when they are off duty, says TSA spokesperson Sterling Payne, and the consequences for doing so would be severe. "I cannot tell you how strong the language is about any type of abuse. It's federal property. It's a serious offense."
If the goal is to calm the public and give the screeners more respect, however, a more straightforward way might be to train TSA employees better and pay them more. New screeners are currently required to complete less than two weeks of classroom training, followed by 112-128 hours of on-the-job training. Entry-level screeners earn between $24,000 and $37,000. "If you want to make them cops, fine. I don't have a problem with that," says the former airport police officer. "If they did better background checks, trained them to law-enforcement standards and paid them more, they would get a higher caliber."
-Amanda Ripley is the author of The Unthinkable, a new book about human behavior during emergencies