Retired N.C. Police Chief Says He Was Detained for 90 Minutes at JFK Airport by Customs and Border Officers

Hassan Aden flies so frequently, flight crews know him by name. The retired North Carolina police chief now runs a consulting firm, sending him across the country on a weekly basis.

A file photo shows the El Carnaval de Puebla en Filadelfia Cinco de Mayo celebration.
(Credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)

And whenever he travels internationally, he usually returns to a familiar greeting by US Customs and Border Protection officers: “Welcome home, sir.”

That was until last week, when Aden’s first international trip of the year left him thinking his freedoms as a US citizen have been eroded.

Aden said he was coming home from celebrating his mother’s 80th birthday in Paris when he was detained by a CBP officer at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

He said he approached a CPD officer, “who didn’t say anything when I handed him my passport, and (he) looked at me with a gruff expression and simply stated, ‘Are you traveling alone?'” Aden posted on Facebook. “I knew this was a sign of trouble.” Aden answered, “Yes,” and the officer replied, “Let’s take a walk.”

Aden said he was taken to a room with signs that said “Remain seated at all times” and “use of telephones strictly prohibited.” The retired police chief from Greenville, North Carolina, said those were clear indications he was being detained. He said he stayed there for an hour and a half.

Aden told the CBP officer he was a former police chief and US citizen. But neither fact helped his case.

“His ignorance of the law and the Fourth Amendment should disqualify him from being able to wear a CBP badge – but maybe fear and detention is the new mission of the CBP and the Constitution is a mere suggestion,” Aden said.

“As former law enforcement, believe me, I agree that if certain criteria is met, a reasonable investigative detention is not inappropriate — the key here being ‘reasonable.’ ”

CBP: We’re committed to fair and impartial treatment

US Borders and Customs Protection released a statement to CNN, declining to provide details on Aden’s case.

“Due to the Privacy Act, we cannot comment on specific cases, but all travelers arriving to the U.S. are subject to CBP inspection. At times, travelers may be inconvenienced as we work through the arrival process to ensure those entering the country are doing so legitimately and lawfully,” the statement said.

“CBP is committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the trade and traveling public, and has memorialized its commitment to nondiscrimination in existing policies, including the February 2014 CBP Policy on Nondiscrimination in Law Enforcement Activities … This policy prohibits the consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement, investigation, and screening activities, in all but the most exceptional circumstances.”

Aden said he appreciates ‘the difficult and dangerous” job CBP officers perform. “But when you’re dealing with US citizens, reasonableness should [come] into play.”

5 minutes vs. 90 minutes

Aden said he’s still not sure why he was detained for 90 minutes when about 25 “foreign nationals were also brought in and quickly released, their detentions were reasonable and appropriate, maybe 5 or so minutes while their passports were checked.”

He said a second, more helpful CBP officer had “explained that my name was used as an alias by someone on some watch list. He stated that he sent my information to another agency to de-conflict and clear me.”

But Aden said in some parts of the world, “Hassan Aden is like Bob Smith” — a very common name. He said he’d never been detained before this year, and a quick check of his passport and his travel history would clear him.

So why is this happening now? Aden said he thinks the Trump administration has ushered in a new attitude that may have trickled down to government employees.

“I think there’s a lot of rhetoric on travel bans, homeland security and measures around national security,” Aden told CNN. “I do think it has something to do with the new administration … I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

“This experience has left me feeling vulnerable and unsure of the future of a country that was once great and that I proudly called my own,” he wrote. “My freedoms were restricted, and I cannot be sure it won’t happen again, and that it won’t happen to my family, my children, the next time we travel abroad. This country now feels cold, unwelcoming, and in the beginning stages of a country that is isolating itself from the rest of the world — and its own people — in an unprecedented fashion.”