GOP congressman wants to disband Air Marshals — program costs taxpayers $200 million per arrest 

Via Boing Boing, after last night’s misunderstanding here’s some food for thought from about the Air Marshal program. It’s from a floor speech Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., (R-Tenn.) gave last year. Duncan has a point about more Air Marshals being arrested for crimes they themselves have committed than arrests they have made in the line of duty:

And listen to this paragraph from a front-page story in the USA Today last November: “Since 9/11, more than three dozen Federal air marshals have been charged with crimes, and hundreds more have been accused of misconduct. Cases range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.”

Actually, there have been many more arrests of Federal air marshals than that story reported, quite a few for felony offenses. In fact, more air marshals have been arrested than the number of people arrested by air marshals.

We now have approximately 4,000 in the Federal Air Marshals Service, yet they have made an average of just 4.2 arrests a year since 2001. This comes out to an average of about one arrest a year per 1,000 employees.

Now, let me make that clear. Their thousands of employees are not making one arrest per year each. They are averaging slightly over four arrests each year by the entire agency. In other words, we are spending approximately $200 million per arrest. Let me repeat that: we are spending approximately $200 million per arrest.

Libertarian journalist Jim Bovard also wrote a damning indictment of the program some time ago, noting that the program was very poorly managed:

Some would-be marshals were hired even after they repeatedly shot flight attendants in mock hijack-response training exercises. One marshal groused that the training for new marshals was “like security-guard training for the mall.” USA Today’s Blake Morrison noted a report that “one marshal was suspended after he left his gun in a lavatory aboard a United Airlines flight from Washington to Las Vegas in December. A passenger discovered the weapon.” An air marshal left his pistol on a Northwest flight from Detroit to Indianapolis; a cleaning crew discovered the weapon. Morrison noted,

At least 250 federal air marshals have left the top-secret program, and documents obtained by USA Today suggest officials are struggling to handle what two managers call a flood of resignations.

It’s hard to blame the Air Marshals for what they did last night given the circumstances. But certainly incidents such as last night make the case that we should at the very least rethink the Air Marshal program and make sure it’s cost effective as well as plain old effective.

And while we’re at it, we should probably also rethink our entire approach to airport and in-flight security — see this excellent article on “What Israel can teach us about security” — but I don’t expect to see any of this happen soon.

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Mark Hemingway

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