Fighting Terrorism at 30,000 Feet

Kimberley ThompsonWhen Kimberley Thompson was assigned to a street crimes unit at the Dallas Police Department, her supervisor taught her to observe people’s behaviors to predict when the next crime would occur.

A few years later, those skills became the hallmark of her job as a federal air marshal, the law enforcement arm of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is charged with protecting the safety of the traveling public.

“It taught me a lot about behavior,” said Thompson, a Sam Houston State University Alumna. “We focus on behavior recognition training. It is one of the things that is going to give you the edge during a flight. It’s not cultural, and it’s not nerves. These are involuntary psychological behaviors indicating someone may fear discovery and pose a risk to security. We rely heavily on it.”

Thompson worked on the frontlines of the federal air marshal’s service for four years out of the Chicago and New York City airports before becoming an instructor at the agency’s Atlantic City Training division. Thompson rose through the ranks to become a supervisor, overseeing the daily operation of training in legal and investigations, field and international work, and medical issues. She also helped create the curriculum on the field interview process, combining her experience in law enforcement in the air and on the ground.

Thompson was recently assigned to the Director’s Office in Arlington, VA, where she serves as a Public Affairs liaison. She works on both internal and external communications and develops strategic communication plans to further the goals and mission of the agency. She also works with other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to coordinate public outreach.

Federal air marshals tactics, defensive measures and advanced firearm skills.
Federal air marshals receive addition training in tactics, defensive measures and advanced firearm skills.
As a federal air marshal prior to her role in Public Affairs, Thompson spent five days a week in training or traveling on domestic or international flights, watching quietly and carefully for safety threats. In addition to federal law enforcement training, federal air marshals receive additional training in tactics, defensive measures and advanced firearm skills.

“We have to be more accurate because of the nature of the work environment,” said Thompson. “We are in an aircraft flying at 30,000 feet, with 60 to 300 other passengers. We have to be extremely accurate.”

“It’s a job for someone who is self motivated and driven. We have a saying here, ‘stay alert, do your job and keep your mindset.’ I’m here to ensure that this plane is going home, I’m going home and we’re all going home safely.”

The Visible Intermodal Prevention Response Team helps local transportation law enforcement during special events.
The Visible Intermodal Prevention Response Team helps local transportation law enforcement during special events.
In addition to the federal air marshal service, TSA's layers of security include two additional law enforcement programs: a force of volunteer pilots, trained in protecting the flight deck, and the Visible Intermodal Prevention Response Team, comprised of personnel from across the agency, including federal air marshals. The VIPR teams serve in various modes of transportation at the request of federal, state or local stakeholders. These teams also have responded to major events, such Super Bowl and Hurricane Katrina, to augment security.

During her career, Thompson became active with the Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE), a professional organization which educates women about law enforcement career opportunities, provides college scholarships to women, and watches out for barriers for women in recruitment, hiring and retention in federal agencies. This year, she became the first TSA law enforcement agent to become president of the organization.

“There is a group of very high caliber, professional women that work at TSA who have reached out and reached back and have truly been a mentor and an advocate for me,” Thompson said.

Throughout her career, Thompson noticed a lack of women in the law enforcement profession, particularly at the federal level. She also found that women bring something different to the career when dealing with the public. During her time with the Dallas Police Department, it came to a head one night during a domestic disturbance call, where the husband was sent to the hospital and the wife went to jail, leaving a six-year-old boy behind.

While police collected evidence, Thompson took the child under her wing. When the night was over, she made the child promise to wave to every police car that went by in case she was inside.

Women in Federal Law Enforcement logo “I wanted to make sure the child saw this as a helpful, not a hurtful experience,” Thompson said. “Most people who are jaded against police associate them with these types of horrible situations.”

Thompson graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in Criminal Justice, and credits professors like Drs. Billy Bramlett and Glen Kercher with lighting the spark.

“I would definitely say that education is extremely important,” Thompson said. “You need to reach out and find a mentor that will give you the information you need. The relationship you build will be lifelong.” Thompson said it is also important to get experience in the criminal justice field. During her senior year at college, she got a job at the Walker County Sheriff’s Department as a dispatcher.

“I wanted to get my foot in the door of law enforcement,” Thompson said. “I also felt career-wise, it is important to learn law enforcement from every angle. It taught me about the sacrifices that law enforcement officers make. They work 24/7 and they often are not home for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries or weekends. I also heard the desperation in people’s voices. Law enforcement officers are going out on the worst days of someone’s life.”

Thompson continues to put all these lessons to good use at the TSA, remembering the anthems she learned from 9/11 and the patriotism that led to her role fighting terrorism.

“At TSA, we have two themes that stick with us every day: 'never forget,’ and ‘Not on my watch,” Thompson said.

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