My research shows that in 2014, for the 10 largest international airports in the United States, CBP received more than 3,400 complaints. About 1,100 of them were for employee conduct. This category was the largest complaint grouping and evidences the need to focus on this issue.

Raw data is critical, but so too are anecdotes and statements from the public. When I worked at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I read a large number of complaints received by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but due to privacy issues, I could not consider them in my analyses. Recently, a complaint made to CBP was made public online. Being able to read and consider it provides a perspective that cannot be gleaned from the data alone.

The complaining individual states that the CBP officers could have done a much better job of conducting themselves. The complaint reads in part:

[Redacted name] asserted that she was mistreated by Customs and Border Patrol (sic) officers at the Reno Airport in that, as a minor, she was denied the opportunity to speak with a family member during her approximately five-hour detention in the primary and secondary inspection areas of the CBP building at the Airport.

One might argue it is not necessary for a law enforcement agency to focus on customer service because it is all about homeland security and nothing else. If you believe that, then maybe we as a country should no longer promote the travel and tourism industry as being important to our economy and that poor customer service is something that everyone should tolerate. I believe differently.

Having good customer service improves the profitability of merchants at the airports. From a law enforcement perspective, a calm airport environment allows CBP and other law enforcement officers to better identify those passengers who need to be singled out for additional screening. If everyone was disgruntled or angry (because they were treated poorly), it becomes more difficult to identify the bad guys.

The easy way for both parties to “win” on this venture is to create a public-private partnership (PPP). PPPs work when both parties entering into the joint venture have something significant to gain. That gain must also be worthwhile for everyone to participate. In this instance, the airport merchants want to make more money and CBP wants to find more bad guys. If these two conditions are met, the partnership will succeed.

Most people entering and leaving the United States are doing so lawfully, and so it is important to not mis-identify the benign traveling public as potential threats. Indeed, travel and tourism spending are significant contributions to our economy. At the same time, it is important to use our limited resources as efficiently as possible so that when an individual is identified by a law enforcement officer to be a suspect, they are certain that they have found a bad actor.

Thus, both parties—the private sector and CBP—have something to gain with improved customer service.