Customs officers should learn the custom of respect

Their job is to prevent any contraband from entering the US. But did these Customs officials have to be so darned surly in the process?

Some enforcement officers believe that they need to be human pit bulls and project an air that would have scofflaws cower. I beg to differ. I think one can be imposing while being respectful. These officials are the first impression many foreigners have of Americans on US turf. So why allow belittling behavior?

Let me share examples from two Customs officers at Los Angeles International Airport on two occasions, a few months apart.

One gruff gray-haired officer barked at a foreigner who barely spoke English. There was a large “stop” sign a yard in front of the officer’s station. This was intended to give each person a little privacy as the officer grilled his current victim. The elderly Chinese man did not stop at the sign but mistakenly stood behind his travel mate. The officer ordered, “Go back to the stop sign. How much bigger does it need to be?”

When it was my turn, he sternly demanded, “What took you out of the country?” Matching his militaristic tone, I replied, “I attended a conference.” He continued his interrogation, “What business are you in?” “The seminar business.” “What kind of seminars?” Looking him straight in the eye, I responded, “Customer service.” (In retrospect my impish self wishes I’d said, “Teaching Customs officers to treat travelers with respect.” But I probably would have been detained.) He softened a bit and waived me through.

The second officer had a similar demeanor. The middle-aged foreign woman in front of me seemed harried trying to keep her abundant luggage on the cart. When it was her turn, a bag fell off the cart and impeded her progress to the officer’s stand. She struggled to put it back on the cart. He chastised her, “Come on lady, I don’t have all day!”

I know that being a Customs officer, questioning thousands of people a day, can be grueling. I know that the people who are drawn to this kind of work can be into power as they can delay or deny entry into the country, or can confiscate bags, or even arrest someone if illegal substances are found. But I’d be surprised if they had even one arrest a day. So they are jerks to thousands of innocent people a day because of the premise that any of them could be a smuggler.

This is no way to welcome people to the US. Many policemen, for example, balance their role as enforcers with that of public relations. They know how to be firm but respectful. (I know there are bad apples in the police force, too.)

If your staff are in the position of enforcement, they need to learn how to do so while not being downright mean. There’s no reason to do that when 99.9% of the people with whom they interact are law-abiding.