DENVER (CBS4) - Denver police have initiated a sexual assault investigation focused on Transportation Security Administration officers at a checkpoint at Denver International Airport. It comes after a Colorado woman filed a complaint saying the frisking she received amounted to a sexual assault.
"It's an open and active investigation," Denver police spokesperson Sonny Jackson said. "We take all complaints seriously and we are on this case as well. We have launched an investigation into it."
The criminal probe stems from a complaint filed by Jamelyn Steenhoek, 39, who was patted down by TSA agents on Dec. 26 as she was escorting her 13-year-old daughter to a flight bound for Philadelphia. Steenhoek was not flying, just getting her daughter to the gate.
"I feel like someone who works for a powerful agency that we are afraid of used their power to violate me sexually -- to put me in my place," said Steenhoek, a working mother for a county social services department. Steenhoke is also a full time college student.
Although she had proper credentials to accompany her daughter to the airline gate, an alarm at the checkpoint sounded when she went through. Steenhoek believes the machine picked up the jewels that were sewn into the rear pockets of her jeans. She was asked to submit to having her hands swabbed, which she did.
"Then they told me I tested positive for explosives," Steenhoek said during an interview with CBS4.
She explained to the agents that the positive hit from her hand swab was probably the result of her pumping gas into her car earlier in the day.
"She said, 'We'll have to do a search.' So I thought, 'Okay.' "
Steenhoek said she was just focused on completing the search and getting to the gate with her daughter with enough time to get her teenager something to eat. She said she was ushered into a small private room at the TSA checkpoint with her daughter watching from a few feet away.
"They told me to spread my arms and spread my feet."
She said the female TSA agent seemed to get agitated when Steenhoek tried to hurry the process along so she could get her daughter to her plane.
"At that point she did a pretty invasive search. They are just areas of the body I'm not comfortable being touched in. On the outside of my pants she cupped my crotch. I was uncomfortable with that."
Steenhoek said the agent repeatedly dug her fingers into Steenhoek's armpits.
"The part of the search that bothered most was the breast search. You could tell it shouldn't take that much groping. To me it was as extensive as an exam from my physician -- full touching and grabbing in the front. I felt uncomfortable, I felt violated."
She said when the search turned up nothing, the agent repeated it a second time.
"So it didn't make any sense. The whole search was done over and more touching and grabbing than the first time."
Eventually TSA officers released her without finding anything and she managed to get her daughter to her flight on time. Steenhoek complained to the TSA about her treatment but felt that would not yield any results.
Three days later she went to Denver police and filed a police complaint against the unnamed female TSA agent who searched her. In the report Steenhoek complained of an "intrusive search," characterizing what happened to her as being "sexually assaulted."
"I was looking for consequences, for TSA to be accountable for what they do to people," Steenhoek told CBS4.
"You want one or more of them to be charged with sexual assault?" she was asked.
"I do," she responded.
Jackson says the sex assault complaint is being handled like any other.
"We'll present it to the district attorney and see if there's enough to charge," Jackson said.
Carrie Harmon, a spokesperson for the TSA at Denver International Airport, declined a CBS4 request for an on camera interview but released a statement saying, "TSA's security officers are trained to perform each pat down in a professional manner to ensure that all individuals are screened to the same standards. Complaints about pat-down procedures are thoroughly investigated, and the agency takes appropriate action, if warranted. The agency cannot comment on an ongoing law enforcement investigation, but is confident the facts will support our officer's adherence to proper pat-down procedures."
The TSA's security pat downs have long been controversial:
- This month a Boston law firm argued in federal court that the TSA pat-downs are unconstitutional and discriminate against people with metal implants
- Last year Texas lawmakers considered passing a bill to make it a felony for TSA officers to touch travelers genitals areas.
- Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has characterized some TSA pat-downs as "unacceptable" and excessive.
While many people express their displeasure with the pat-downs, it seems few actually file official police reports requesting criminal charges against those conducting the pat-downs.
"There's a process for making sure agencies are accountable," Steenhoek said. "Everyone is accountable."
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