Behavior Detection Officers: Where they are and what they are doing.


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

President, bSci21Media, LLC

You probably didn’t know, but since 2007 Behavior Detection Officers have been watching you.  The officers are part of the TSA’s SPOT program, which stands for Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques.  

Here’s how it works:  the TSA employs the officers to scan the facial expressions of travelers for “micro-expressions” that indicate whether or not the passenger is likely to instigate a security incident.  Micro expressions are subtle involuntary facial expressions that are extremely difficult to fake or hide.  If an officer detects a particular combination of micro expressions, you may be pulled aside for further questioning.
In theory, the program may sound like a good idea.  After all, behavior analysts commonly rely on precursor behaviors when writing behavior plans, which allow the practitioner to reliably predict and prevent the occurrence of a future problem behavior.  So, why not put our practical knowledge of precursor behaviors to use in increasing safe air travel?   Well…it isn’t that simple.
The SPOT program has come under heavy scrutiny.  Little evidence supports the predictive validity of micro-expressions on future incidents such as terrorism.  Additionally, criteria by which officers pull someone aside for further questioning are rather subjective and open to interpretation.  Lastly, and perhaps linked to the latter issue, the program has produced several accusations of ethnic or racial profiling.
It goes without saying that most people are a bit stressed when they travel, particularly in the post-9/11 security age of removing shoes for the x-ray machine, going through body scanners, and random pat downs.  Thus, given the context, an accurate determination of the stimuli which occasion particular micro-expressions are next to impossible. 
Have you ever been questioned by a Behavior Detection Officer?  Share your story in the comments below.  Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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