The Drug Enforcement Administration needs to do a better job with the potentially sensitive ‘cold consent’ stops made at mass transit locations, auditors warn in a new report.
Noting the potential for “civil rights concerns,” including racial profiling, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General called for more data and better training. One problem, auditors say, is that DEA agents haven’t been collecting demographic information on the people they stop.
“Without this information the DEA cannot assess whether they are conducted in an unbiased manner,” the OIG auditors noted.
Prompted by complaints by two African-American women resulting from separate DEA-initiated encounters at an airport, the auditors examined the general practice of cold consent encounters. These can occur when an agent approaches an individual based on no particular behavior, or based on the officer’s perception that the person is exhibiting characteristics indicative of drug trafficking. The officer asks for consent to speak with the individual and, if the agent thinks it warranted, seeks consent to search their belongings.
In one case, a Defense Department lawyer who was traveling on government business complained that, as she was on the jetway preparing to board her flight, she was approached by DEA agents, told that she was being stopped for “secondary screening,” and then subjected to “aggressive and humiliating questioning” by the agents.
“No funds were found or seized during the incident,” auditors noted.
While auditors said they were “unable to assess whether cold consent encounters are an effective means of interdiction,” they cited DEA information to cast some doubt. Data from 2000-2002 showed the encounters had a “substantially lower success rate” than other methods, and auditors said supervisors and managers “questioned the effectiveness of these encounters.”
In the agency’s formal response, the DEA agreed to a number of recommendations, including better training and taking a look at better data collection.