ACLU Urges Lawmakers to Investigate Racial Profiling And Recklessness by Federal Air Marshals

September 24, 2002 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA–The American Civil Liberties Union today called on lawmakers to investigate the actions of air marshals who handcuffed and detained a 54-year-old Florida doctor of Indian descent because they “”didn’t like the way he looked.””

In letters sent to lawmakers in Philadelphia and Florida, ACLU officials described how Dr. Bob Rajcoomar became a victim of racial profiling after a flight on which air marshals subdued an unruly passenger and held other passengers at gunpoint for 30 minutes.

“”This ugly incident should serve as a wake-up call to our elected officials,”” said Stefan Presser, Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which along with the ACLU of Florida is representing Dr. Rajcoomar and his wife, who are Florida residents. “”In our haste to protect ourselves, we are literally turning on each other.””

The Rajcoomars’ disturbing experience has garnered national media attention, including a recent column in The New York Times calling the air marshals “”high altitude Rambos.”” Dr. Rajcoomar told the Times that he remains shaken by the episode. “I had never been treated like that in my life,” he said. “I was afraid that I was about to be beaten up or killed.”

The ACLU letters urged lawmakers to immediately begin an investigation of the training and conduct of the armed personnel who are now placed on civilian air craft. “”There is reason to believe that given the rapid expansion of the air marshal program, the [Transportation Security Administration] is hiring persons who are truly not qualified to fulfill such critical responsibilities. Moreover, once hired, it would appear that the future air marshals are not receiving appropriate or sufficient training,”” the ACLU letters said.

According to legal papers filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the incident arose on August 31 of this year, when air marshals on board Delta Flight 442 from Atlanta to Philadelphia were called to subdue an apparently disoriented man seated in the coach section. The marshals moved the man, who is white, to the first class section, where they seated him next to Dr. Rajcoomar, a U.S. citizen, physician and United States Army Reserve Officer of Indian descent. Dr. Rajcoomar asked to have his seat changed and the flight attendant obliged.

For the remainder of the flight, air marshals held passengers at gunpoint and refused to allow anyone to get up, even to use the bathroom, despite the fact that the disoriented passenger had been shackled to his seat. While all of the passengers were terrified, the nightmare continued for Dr. Rajcoomar after the flight landed. Air marshals handcuffed Dr. Rajcoomar without explanation and took him into the custody of Philadelphia police, where he was detained for four hours. His wife Dorothy was given no information on what had happened to her husband, and because the authorities confiscated Dr. Rajcoomar’s cellular phone, she had no way to contact him.

After four tense hours in detention, Dr. Rajcoomar was released. TSA personnel told him that he had been detained because air marshals on board the flight did not “”like the way he looked.”” The agency’s official explanation for Dr. Rajcoomar’s treatment is that while on board, Dr. Rajcoomar “”had been observing [the actions of the air marshals] too closely.””

“”As a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army Reserves, and a physician in private practice for the last 20 years, the entire situation for Dr. Rajcoomar was enormously demoralizing, physically abusive and has taken a psychological toll,”” the ACLU of Pennsylvania said in legal papers filed with the United States Department of Transportation. “”It has completely shattered the sense of personal security that he had enjoyed as a citizen of the United States.””

“This is racial profiling at its worst,”” said Jim Green, an attorney with the ACLU of Florida who is co-counsel in the Rajcoomar’s case. “”There is absolutely no legal or factual justification for why the air marshals treated Dr. Rajcoomar the way they did.””

The Rajcoomars are represented by Presser and Green and by ACLU national staff attorney Reginald T. Shuford, who is also part of an ACLU legal team representing a group of men who were ejected from flights based on the prejudices of airline employees and passengers and for reasons wholly unrelated to security. See /node/10965

The ACLU letters were sent to Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Representative Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania and to Democratic Senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson and Democratic Representatives Alcee Hastings and Robert Wexler of Florida.

The letters to Senator Specter and Representative Fattah are online at /node/35410 and /node/35411

The letters to Florida Representatives are online at

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