How Britney Spears relates to airport security discretion

TMZ is humorously hammering on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners who let Britney Spears through a checkpoint carrying a "big gulp" cup of some soda beverage. With over 47,000 votes in on the issue (source: poll results on TMZ story page),  88% Americans apparently think it is "unfair" that Britney made it through when they would have been denied to carry their own drink cup through. The TSA defended its choice by telling TMZ that screeners have discretion when it comes to liquids at the checkpoint.

So, what is discretion? And would it be more fair to enforce rules perfectly evenly?

Britney Spears at security checkpointTSA has been criticized in the past for using discretion to disallow certain items at security checkpoints, and that is part of the policy. If a TSA screener is not comfortable with a certain item, even if the item is not expressly prohibited, that item can be denied. Apparently that rule goes both ways, and if there is an item that the screener is comfortable with, it can be allowed to pass. Such an item would be Britney's soda cup.

The issue that comes up for security managers is how far do you let discretion go? If you give officers the power of discretion, how much do you give? At what point can you allow them to deviate (if ever so slightly) from written, codified rules? Do you only allow discretion when something isn't covered by your big black book of security policies and procedures?

These are the issues that a security manager has to strategically consider. And I'd ask any security manager who reads this: Do you know how to spot those instances in your policies where more or less discretion should be allowed?

There was one security manager who wrote extensively on this. He happened to be heading up the TSA at the time and his name was Kip Hawley. I have blatantly excerpted Kip's comments from a TSA weekly newsletter last year and posted them below (and I highlighted a line I particularly like). Before I turn you to the wisdom of Kip Hawley and his thoughts on the topic of security discretion, I want to note that registration for this Thursday's free webinar on airport employee access control is still open (and if you're reading this later, the live program will be archived until November 2010).


Evolution: Kip Answers Your Questions (from, direct link)

Editor's Note: The following is the first in a series of four segments that detail Administrator Kip Hawley's responses to questions from officers at a recent ENGAGE! graduation ceremony.

What is meant by "discretion?" How much and what kind of discretion will people have?

Discretion is about understanding and acting on risk.

"Discretion" comes from a firm grasp of all aspects of the job and is a natural part of thinking risk management. Discretion comes from being switched-on. For TSA, discretion means taking advantage of the formidable, collective experience that TSOs bring to the mission.

Discretion means taking the time to think about a bag or a passenger and acting on it. The bottom line is that TSOs must resolve a suspicion of a possible threat. TSOs should use peers and supervisors to advise and help as needed, and they should call on their professional judgment, experience, intuition, and training to determine what actions to take to mitigate security threats. TSOs should apply discretion to achieve common sense results that positively resolve suspicion.

It does not mean shortcutting security to reduce wait times or deciding to "take a chance" on something because it's more convenient, faster or easier.

What happens when someone uses discretion and makes a mistake? How do I know my supervisor or manager will back me up?

Mistakes are going to happen. Not every TSO is experienced. Not every TSO will find it easy to engage. ENGAGE! emphasizes networking precisely because the more information and experience we share, the less likely we are to make a mistake.

When a mistake does happen, the principle of COACH! is to understand what happened, why it happened, and what the key lessons are going forward. It's up to the individual to learn from mistakes and demonstrate progress and commitment. COACH! is aimed at LTSOs, supervisors, TSMs, AFSDs, and FSDs, and it is backed up by the personal commitment of TSA's top leadership.

Realistically, there will be disagreements about whether a mistake was the result of a reasonable decision or a byproduct of carelessness or inattention. Reflecting on a supervisor's judgment may be helpful in these situations. If a team member believes that they are being judged unfairly on the principles of ENGAGE!, he or she can turn to a mentor for guidance or participate in Model Workplace processes to address their concern.

PS: It is important to remember that the objective of ENGAGE! is not to do away with the SOP but to use it as a guide in a world where terrorists seek to find the gray areas not covered by the terms of the SOP.

Thanks for reading, please share your comments.