TSA "Freeze" Drill Video'd at Sky Harbor; Passengers Exiting Checkpoint Told to Stay Put

A traveler at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport shot video last week of TSA employees subjecting passengers to a "freeze drill."

The passengers already had cleared a security checkpoint in Terminal 4 when Transportation Security Administration officials stopped them from proceeding. The video uploader, who captured the last 24 seconds (see below) of the two-minute-plus incident, wrote on YouTube that, at the time, it was unclear to people what was going on:

A TSA employee was pointing his blue-gloved hand at anyone who moved a muscle (including airport workers) and barking these orders. Beyond him were two other agents doing the same thing to everyone in a 90-degree radius. The tension was rather palpable, as you might imagine. No explanation was given, no other words were spoken. No one moved a muscle. Parents grabbed their children. Anyone who fidgeted or made a step forward got yelled at.

Once on the plane, the traveler found out from a fellow passenger that the incident was a "freeze drill" mentioned last year in a New York Times article by Joe Sharkey. The exercises, called "Bravo" drills by the TSA, have drawn criticism as yet another heavy-handed policy by the federal agency.

"It's about reinforcing the notion that people are mandated to obey every order made by someone in uniform no matter how asinine," writes Paul Joseph Watson, editor of PrisonPlanet.com, in an article published today about the video.

The video was shot just past the security checkpoint near "D" gates.

Nico Melendez, regional spokesman for the TSA, tells New Times that the drills help TSA personnel prepare for a breach of security at the checkpoint.

If TSA employees perceive a threat in the checkpoint, they need to get immediate control of the area, Melendez explains. The TSA doesn't want a potential suspect walking away or mingling with the travelers just leaving the checkpoint, so the passengers just beyond the checkpoint are halted, he says.

Such drills occur often at airports around the country. But Melendez admits that travelers don't typically know the "all-stop" order actually is a drill.

"The guidance for passengers is to remain calm and do what they're asked to do," he says. "By and large, passengers usually are accepting of the fact. They seem to understand the importance of what we're doing."

UPDATE: Melendez e-mailed back later in this day to say this: "I was mistaken earlier.  In fact, our TSOs do alert passengers of the drill and thank them for their patience.  The exercise usually takes no more than 2 minutes."

However, in accounts by the video-taker and Sharkey, no announcement of a drill was given.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.