"Coke, looks like about 10 pounds, taped to his chest."
Tommy exchanges high-fives with Bootsie, one of his undercover rovers, as she explains how she picked the unlikely looking drug mule from among the hundreds of incoming passengers on a flight from Colombia. (Don't worry, we won't give away her trade secrets.) A couple more of his rovers quickly team up to check out the smuggler's records, book him, and look for any connections to other passengers or luggage. Within minutes, the troops are back out on the floor, working the next wave of passengers.
Tommy Roland is doing something that any TV cop would envy -- running one of the most successful drug-busting operations around. Tommy supervises the inspection team for the U.S. Customs Service at Miami International Airport. "I'm proud of the rovers," he says. "The stuff that they're doing now is defining where Customs is going. I'm thrilled to be a part of that. They use their intuition, their creativity, their imagination on the job. It's really beautiful to watch them. I feel like the coach of some awesome basketball team."
But Tommy says it was not always this much fun. "In the olden days,' the whole philosophy of what a Customs inspector was supposed to do and how he was supposed to do it was completely different. First of all, we all wore our uniforms, so we were easy for the smugglers to spot." Today, Tommy is working in jeans and sneakers, and wearing an earring. "We stood in our little enclosures waiting for passengers to come to us with their bags. We didn't know anything about them until we saw the whites of their eyes. We just stood there in our uniforms waiting. A tough way to win a drug war.
"We were looking for needles in haystacks -- looking for that nervous passenger, just doing behavior analysis.' Everyone who walked off a plane was a suspect. Every suitcase was suspicious. We were unfocused and wasted a lot of time. And at the end of the day, we had dug through a lot of underwear and socks, but hadn't found much dope. What we were exceptionally good at was infuriating the legitimate travelers -- hundreds of thousands of honest, decent American citizens and foreign tourists and business executives each year." Passengers sometimes waited in line for over three hours. Occasionally, a fist fight would break out.
Today, cocaine seizures are up by 50 percent. Heroin seizures up by 21 percent.(1) Passengers seldom wait more than a few minutes. This is reinvention.
Tommy says it all started with flowers. "We used to handle cargo the same way we handled passengers -- just stabbing in the dark. We knew dope was coming into the country in boxes of flowers. So we probed flower boxes. We used these big metal flower probes and poked away from midnight 'til 8:00 a.m. This was an all night thing, night in and night out. Thirty thousand boxes of flowers came into the airport each night, and we would probe each one once or twice. That's a lot of probe holes. I totally hated Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. Finally, we realized that this was a really stupid way to look for dope -- and the flower shippers didn't much like it either. So we sent our own inspectors to South America to look at every single aspect of the whole process.
"We went to the flower farms to see where the flowers were grown. We looked at how the flowers got trucked from the farm to the market, and then to the airport to see how they were staged to get on the plane -- who put them on the plane, who hired the people who put them on the plane -- and the same on the other end -- who took them off the plane and who hired these folks. Looking at the entire process, we saw just how vulnerable a shipment of flowers is all along the way. That's when it hit home. If we were gonna make a dent in the dope, we couldn't do it alone -- we had to be partners with the airlines.
"Now the airlines have their own people checking the flowers. Instead of Customs inspectors probing flower boxes here, the boxes are x-rayed before they get on the planes. The airlines have contract security people watching the x-rays. And we video the watchers as a counter-deterrent. They're not our own people so we still check them, but they are our allies, not our enemies. If we had started this earlier, I probably would have saved my shoulder. All that bending over probing flowers wrecked my shoulder."
Partnership with the airlines and shippers has turned out to be the key to success, but according to Tommy, it did not come easy. "Tell the airlines our secrets and have them work together with us to find drugs? Unimaginable. Consider the Immigration Service an ally? No way. Ask the skycaps for their suggestions? Never. Back then everything was a secret and everyone was the enemy. If I told you, I'd have to kill you.' That was more like it. Basically, we didn't trust anybody.
"It wasn't just that we didn't trust the folks outside the system. We didn't trust the folks inside the system that much more. A perfect example was all the stupid paper work we had to fill out. An hour or two before the end of every single shift, we would have to come into the office and fill out a shift report. It seemed like we spent more time writing these reports detailing every single thing we did during the day than we spent looking for dope. It was a real big waste of time and money. And it made me feel like I couldn't be trusted. I really hated that. But things have really changed in the last few years. We got rid of a lot of wasted motion. The guys that work for me don't fill these out anymore. They're paid to look for dope, not to fill out forms."
"I remember lots of hassles I'd have to go through just to do my job. For example, when you're looking through cargo, you might need to drill through a box to see what's inside. But if I wanted to drill, I had to go to a senior inspector who would go to a supervisor who would go to the chief's office where the one drill we had was locked up. Like I wasn't responsible enough to be given the tools to do my job or the authority to make decisions by myself. Now, when inspectors come on board, we give them their own drills. Makes sense to me.
"Even the way the agency was structured sent a loud and clear message about trust. There were just so many layers of bureaucracy to deal with. We used to have regional offices. They were like speed bumps. The guys there had been away from the field so long that you always had to slow down and explain the real world to them. Getting rid of the regions was like a miracle."
What Tommy attributes to a miracle was really the work of a team of employees that Customs Commissioner George Weise chartered to reinvent the U.S. Customs Service. They cut the size of the Washington headquarters by a third, and they eliminated all seven regions and 43 district offices. "In my book, George Weise gets an awful lot of credit," Tommy says. "Not just for cutting out some layers of management, but for really having faith in us down here -- trusting us to figure out how to do the job better. It takes some leadership to turn an organization around the way Customs has. He should be proud."
Part of the turn-around came from employing modern tools and techniques. "They assigned me to start looking through the computerized cargo manifests and analyzing information from the airlines," Tommy explains. "This was the first time I had to work with computers looking for dope, and they kinda had to drag me to it kicking and screaming. But in about six weeks, I seized 3,000 pounds of coke using manifest review techniques and targeting.
"Once we realized the power of targeting freight with computer analysis, we wanted to get into pre-analysis of passengers, too. It made sense. If we could get passenger lists when the planes took off, we could start working hours before the plane arrived. We got the majority of the airlines to cooperate. They want to get the dope off their planes. They certainly don't want us seizing their multimillion-dollar 747s. Now, we screen their passenger lists and we know who we're looking for -- we go right up to the plane and start working. We don't just stand there in our uniforms waiting for the drugs to come to us. We go out and find it. I hate to use a Washington term, but I guess you'd say we're proactive."
The changes at Miami International Airport are tangible. "These partnerships are changing the whole environment here. There's an energy at this airport that I've never felt in my 22 years here," says Amaury Zuriarrain, deputy director of the Metro-Dade Aviation Department, which runs the airport. "The passengers are noticing the improvements, too."
"It's kind of funny," Tommy adds. "Life is a lot easier for most passengers. They don't have to wait in lines for hours and be treated like suspected criminals. But you know what? Some passengers have written to us that we're not doing our job because the process is so easy for them now. They shouldn't be fooled by that. Just because they don't see me doesn't mean I'm not watching them."
Tommy is dead serious about keeping drugs out of South Florida. "This is where I live. This is where I'm raising my family. And I continually ask myself, Is it good to have dope in the schools?' Hell, my kids are in those schools. I don't want dope in my schools. I don't just go to school for Career Day. I go on field trips with these kids. They come to my home. I know every kid's name in my son's fifth grade class. This is my idea of family values.
"It may sound funny, but this experience here at work really has had an effect on my family life. Before, if one of my kids did something wrong, my wife and I would automatically decide how to handle the situation. After all, we're the parents. We're the managers' in our family. But we've started to look at things a little differently. We're sharing the decision-making with the boys -- asking for their input. They're involved in the decision-making process."
Tommy Roland is a new style "manager" at home and on the job, and it is not just the jeans, sneakers, and earring. He works with energy, creativity, and teamwork, and he produces results. He sums it up simply: "I'm not a bureaucrat. I've got a job to do."
That's obviously the kind of attitude we want in all federal workers. We always have. And most young workers have that attitude when they first sign up. But the government's various systems -- procurement, management, and personnel -- can sap the energy, creativity, and enthusiasm out of the people who work for the government. Luckily for us, lots of workers all over government are like Tommy. They stick with it anyway because they want so much to do something that really matters -- to do something good for the American people. Let's take a look at the systems that de-motivate people, and what the Clinton-Gore Administration has been doing to change things.