Houston police and the federal Transportation Security Administration disagree over who is responsible for allowing a man with what appeared to be bomb components board an aircraft at Hobby Airport last week.
Although the FBI eventually cleared the man of wrongdoing, police officials have transferred the officer involved and are investigating the incident while insisting that the TSA, not police, has the authority to keep a suspicious person from boarding a flight.
"Our job is not to be the gatekeepers," police Capt. Dwayne Ready said. "That burden falls squarely on the airline and TSA to make that final decision.
"We are looking at our role in the situation to make sure our policies were adhered to," he said. "During follow-up, we are finding that there simply was not a material threat."
TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said screeners have the authority to stop people from going beyond the checkpoint to the boarding areas, but they rely heavily on local police.
"It's just agencies talking with each other," Ready said, downplaying the disagreement.
Details of the dispute
McCauley and Ready would not comment about the June 26 incident, but a confidential TSA report obtained by the Houston Chronicle details a dispute between screeners and a police officer on duty at the airport.
The report states that a man with a Middle Eastern name and a ticket for a Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta shook his head when screeners asked if he had a laptop computer in his baggage, but an X-ray machine operator detected a laptop.
A search of the man's baggage revealed a clock with a 9-volt battery taped to it and a copy of the Quran, the report said. A screener examined the man's shoes and determined that the "entire soles of both shoes were gutted out."
No explosive material was detected, the report states. A police officer was summoned and questioned the man, examined his identification, shoes and the clock, then cleared him for travel, according to the report.
A TSA screener disagreed with the officer, saying "the shoes had been tampered with and there were all the components of (a bomb) except the explosive itself," the report says.
The officer retorted, "I thought y'all were trained in this stuff," TSA officials reported.
The report says the TSA screener notified Delta Airlines and talked again with the officer, who said he had been unable to check the passenger's criminal background because of computer problems.
The incident gained enough attention at higher levels of the TSA that the FBI was asked to investigate. The TSA issued a statement saying its screeners "acted in accordance with their training and protocols."
FBI Special Agent Stephen Emmett in Atlanta said agents there investigated the passenger.
"It was looked at and deemed a non-event," Emmett said, declining to give further details.
Meanwhile the officer involved in the dispute, J.O. Reece, has been transferred to a desk job, "the same place they send officers who are relieved of duty," said Chad Hoffman, attorney for the Houston Police Officers Union.
Hoffman said Reece doesn't understand why he was transferred "when it seems clear from the onset of the investigation that he didn't have probable cause to detain anybody and that his actions were consistent with the law and HPD policy."
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