TAMPA— They've been called molesters, threatened with violence and ordered not to touch "my junk."
One woman headbutted a TSA officer who was searching her laptop. Other screeners report being punched, kicked and shoved during pat-downs. Security officers know the new searches are more invasive but want Thanksgiving travelers to keep in mind they are doing their jobs.
"We just want the public to understand that we're not perverts," said screener Ricky D. McCoy, who heads a TSA union for Illinois and Wisconsin.
TSA chief John Pistole has heard the complaints.
"We are exploring again ways that they might be less invasive and yet with the same outcomes in terms of detection, but that is really the challenge that we have and that dynamic tension between security and privacy and reasonable people can disagree as to exactly where that blend is as it relates to you as a passenger," Pistole told reporters Tuesday.
To be sure, most passengers are docile when going through a security checkpoint, though McCoy said the atmosphere has changed in the past two weeks.
Last week, for instance, McCoy explained the search to a passenger.
"The guy looked me straight in the face and said, 'I don't know what I might do to you if you touch me,' " McCoy said.
McCoy told the passenger that touching an officer would be the worst mistake he has ever made because authorities would be called. The search went smoothly.
"About 10 minutes later his wife came back and apologized for what he said," McCoy said.
The new pat-downs began about a month ago, and early on, an officer was assaulted. Since the story made headlines, McCoy said officers at least six times have been punched, pushed or shoved after they explained what would be happening.
He blamed TSA for the uproar, saying the agency didn't reach out to passengers enough.
"We have major problems because basically TSA never educated the public on what was going on," McCoy said. "Our agency pretty much just threw the new search techniques out there."
But the searches are not all furor. The nation also has paused to laugh. After all, this is the news story that spawned the phrase: "Don't touch my junk."
Those words were made famous a week ago by a Southern California man who uttered them to a TSA officer while capturing the showdown on his iPhone.
Saturday Night Live jumped on the controversy last weekend, with a minute-long skit equating the TSA with a dating service. The skit ends: "It's our business to touch yours."
And then there's the downright uncomfortable: Valorie Lacey, a TSA officer in Philadelphia, recalled doing a pat-down on a woman's lower body.
"While I was bending over, I saw two men gawking at us," she said.
TSA officers have received eight to 12 hours of training on the pat-down procedure, said Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman in Tampa. Training on the scanning machines is a three-day process that requires on-the-job training. She said the agents must pass tests each year and requalify for their jobs.
Despite the occasional outburst, many passengers are forgiving.
"I personally wouldn't want to be patted down," said 29-year-old Relana McGlothan, an Army reservist from Orlando who was on her way Tuesday to Raleigh, N.C. "But I think the security people are just doing their jobs."
Valyria Lewis, a screener and president of a local union, says most passengers are cooperative.
"We braced for that, but that's not what we've seen," said Lewis, who heads the local that covers Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina. "We're seeing a totally different thing than what we're seeing in the media."