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Nipple ring search procedures faulty, TSA admits

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: TSA backs officers who made passenger remove nipple rings
  • NEW: Agency acknowledges that procedures need to be changed
  • Agent using handheld metal detector at Lubbock airport found piercings
  • Woman says she heard male agents snicker as she removed rings
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The Transportation Security Administration said Friday its officers at a Texas airport appear to have properly followed procedures when they allegedly forced a woman to remove her nipple rings -- one with pliers -- but acknowledged the procedures should be changed.

The woman involved -- Mandi Hamlin -- told reporters earlier Friday she was humiliated by last month's incident, in which she was forced to painfully remove the piercings behind a curtain as she heard snickers from male TSA officers nearby. The incident occurred at the Lubbock, Texas, airport.

The officers "rightly insisted that the alarm that was raised be resolved," the TSA said in a statement posted on its Web site Friday afternoon. "TSA supports the thoroughness of the officers involved as they were acting to protect the passengers and crews of the flights departing Lubbock that day."

However, "TSA has reviewed the procedures themselves and agrees that they need to be changed," the statement said. "In the future, TSA will inform passengers that they have the option to resolve the alarm through a visual inspection of the article in lieu of removing the item in question."

Hamlin and her lawyer, celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, said they want a public apology from the agency, as well as a guarantee that future passengers with piercings will be treated with dignity and respect.

Allred pointed out that TSA's Web site says passengers with piercings can undergo a pat-down inspection if they do not want to take their piercings out -- an option she said Hamlin was never offered.

"The conduct of TSA was cruel and unnecessary," Allred told reporters at a news conference. "Last time that I checked, a nipple was not a dangerous weapon."

She said if an apology was not forthcoming, "Mandi is going to have to consider her legal options."

Attempts by CNN to reach Allred for a response to the TSA statement Friday afternoon were unsuccessful.

TSA said in its statement it acknowledges "that our procedures caused difficulty for the passenger involved and regrets (the) situation in which she found herself. We appreciate her raising awareness on this issue and we are changing the procedures to ensure that this does not happen again."

The incident occurred February 24 as Hamlin, 37, was preparing to fly to Dallas-Fort Worth from Lubbock, where she had been visiting her elderly great-uncle.

Hamlin said she also has navel and ear piercings and has never set off a metal detector or been singled out for additional screening at an airport.

She did not set off the metal detector at Lubbock International Airport, but was pulled to the side for additional screening, Allred said. A hand wand used by a TSA officer beeped when it was waved over her breasts.

Hamlin told the officer she had nipple piercings, Allred said, and that officer called over another officer, who told her she would need to remove them.

"Ms. Hamlin did not want to remove her nipple piercings," Allred said, reading from a letter she sent TSA. "After nipple rings are inserted, the skin can often heal around the piercing and the rings can be extremely difficult and painful to remove. In addition, once removed, the pierced skin may close up almost immediately, making it difficult and painful to reinsert the piercing."

More officers were called over, and the group grew to four male and two female TSA officers, according to Hamlin. Also, a small crowd of onlookers had started to gather. The officers insisted that Hamlin remove the nipple rings, Allred said.

"She felt humiliated by the scene that the TSA officers were making," Allred said.

"With tears streaming down her face, she again asked to show the piercings to a TSA officer instead of having to remove them. She was told, however, she would not be allowed to fly unless she removed them. Had she been told that she had a right to a pat-down, she would have chosen that option."

She eventually was taken to a private area behind a curtain to remove the piercings, Allred said. One came out easily, but the other would not, and she called to an officer that she was having trouble and would need pliers. She was handed a large pair, Allred said.

"As Ms. Hamlin struggled to remove the piercing, behind the curtain she could hear a growing number of predominately male TSA officers snickering in the background," Allred said in the letter.

"Mandi Hamlin was publicly humiliated. ... Clearly, this is not how passengers should be treated." Video Watch the passenger demonstrate removing the jewelry »

Afterward, Hamlin underwent another scan, but realized she had forgotten to remove her navel ring. She offered to remove it, Allred said, but an officer told her it was not necessary because he could see it. Hamlin wondered why a similar visual inspection of her nipple rings would not have sufficed, Allred said.

"I wouldn't wish this experience upon anyone," Hamlin told reporters. "I felt surprised, embarrassed, humiliated and scared. No one deserves to go through this."

In a statement earlier Friday, the TSA said it "is well aware of terrorists' interest in hiding dangerous items in sensitive areas of the body. Therefore, we have a duty to the American public to resolve any alarm that we discover."

TSA included in its statement a picture of a prototype training device it will use to simulate a "bra bomb" in training and testing its officers.

Hamlin said she had to visit the person who originally pierced her nipples to get the rings reinserted, and said the process was excruciatingly painful because of the scar tissue that had formed.

"People who are pierced should not be snickered at, should not become the object of ridicule, should not be singled out for special and uneven and unequal treatment," Allred said. "They should be respected just like everybody else."

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She said she had received a call from TSA's public affairs office Friday morning. "We hope that means they're going to jump on this and do something about it," she said. "We want TSA to do the right thing now. We're going to give them the opportunity."

Hamlin said she will continue to fly but will avoid the Lubbock airport. The next time she visits her great-uncle, she said, "I will be driving." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.

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