TSA thefts? Well, yes, but don't forget the good, TSA rep says

Grenades found in luggage. TSA agents 'good catches

A TSA officer was arrested Wednesday at New York's JFK airport after a fellow officer allegedly saw her steal cash out of a passenger's jacket as it moved along a conveyor belt, a Transportation Safety Administration spokeswoman has acknowledged.

Alexandra Schmid is accused of taking $5,000 from the jacket as it passed by on its way to be X-rayed, the Associated Press reported.

The alleged theft is just one of several recent incidents that have cast the agency in a negative light -- and TSA officers, arguably, didn't have a stellar reputation with the public to begin with.

But Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman, is staunch in her defense of TSA officers' integrity. "The actions of a few individuals in no way reflect on the outstanding job our 50,000 security officers do every day," Farbstein said in a news release after Wednesday's arrest.

The question may boil down to: Do several bad apples outweigh five grenades, a 19-inch sword and a 2-carat diamond?

In an interview with The Times on Thursday, Farbstein talked of such "great catches" by agents -- who screen an average of 2 million people a day nationwide -- and other "good work" often overlooked by the media.

But first, more on the incidents that have stirred criticism:

At LaGuardia last week, a "pipe bomb" scare had the agency in hot water with reports that possible bombs had been left lying around for hours before the bomb squad was called. 

A TSA official said, in fact, that the device was discovered in a carry-on bag about 11:30 a.m., screened for explosives "and determined not to be a threat." The owner of the device helped officers in determining what it was and what it was for. 

"It appears that only when a later shift came on duty and saw the device in the abandoned property area and without the full information, they pursued the suspicious device protocol and contacted the Port Authority Police Department," the official said.

The Associated Press noted several other incidents from January. An agent at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport was suspended after a passenger's stolen iPad was allegedly found at his home -- where seven other iPads also were found, police said.

At Miami International Airport, the AP reports, a TSA agent was charged in January with stealing items and luggage and smuggling them out in a hidden jacket pocket.

And two other former TSA agents at JFK were sentenced on Jan. 10 to six months in jail and five years' probation for stealing $40,000 from a piece of luggage in January 2011, the AP says.

Still, Farbstein says, "the majority of our officers do the right thing every day. ... People would be surprised at how many weapons are found.  People would be surprised at how people artfully conceal things."

In August, she said, a TSA security officer operating the X-ray machine at a checkpoint at Greater Rochester International Airport found "a double-sided 19-inch sword concealed inside a cane." In December, a knife disguised as a belt buckle -- attached to a pair of pants inside a carry-on bag -- was stopped at a TSA checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Early last month, a man headed from JFK International Airport to San Juan was stopped by baggage screeners who found five knives in the man's checked baggage. Police confiscated the knives and arrested the man on a local charge.

In December, TSA explosives experts at Newark airport were called in, she said, after screeners found five grenades inside luggage. The team found that the grenades were inert and the Belgium-bound passenger surrendered her items to officials.

There are also happy endings, which Farbstein admitted are not great news fodder.

A woman buckled onto a flight leaving Greater Rochester airport found that her 2-carat diamond had fallen out of her ring. TSA agents at the security checkpoint were informed, and some scoured the floor on hands and knees. It was spotted in a walk-through metal detector and returned.

When a French man and his daughter who both spoke little English were separated at Newark airport, TSA, police, airline gate agents and airport personnel launched a wide search that eventually netted the emotional girl, who was reunited with her father.

It's these such incidents, rather than the negative ones, that are representative of officers' "normal job," Farbstein said. "That's what they do, they don't even think twice about it."

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-- Amy Hubbard

Photo: Grenades found in luggage. Credit: TSA

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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