WASHINGTON (AP) -- While the Customs Service was confronting lawsuits from innocent travelers who were strip-searched, the number of heroin and cocaine smugglers it caught in airports dropped by one-fourth last year.

That leaves customs with a double problem: reversing the decline in drug seizures while tempering public anger over the way international air travelers are searched.Agency officials are worried that the lawsuits, generally filed against individual officers, may have caused some inspectors to search passengers less aggressively, customs spokesman Dennis Murphy said. They don't believe the number of smugglers decreased.

"This search authority is crucial for us," Kelly said in an interview with the Associated Press. "We're trying to show movement in the right direction so that we keep the authority but make it a less onerous process."

To address complaints about body searches, Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly has begun instituting a host of changes: retraining inspectors, updating guidelines in the agency's search handbook, providing more information about the process for travelers and trying new technology to reduce the need for invasive body searches.

In pursuit of smugglers who swallow packets of drugs, officers have subjected passengers to strip searches, taken them in handcuffs to hospitals for X-rays and detained some for hours or days.

Almost 100 black women in Chicago are pursuing a joint lawsuit claiming they were singled out unfairly because of their race. It is one of 12 lawsuits nationally over customs searches of airline passengers, a spokesman said.

A traveler won a $450,000 judgment against customs officers in San Francisco last year.

"There is concern that these lawsuits have caused people to back off a little bit," contrary to agency policy, Murphy said. But the spokesman said there is no proof of that.

The number of travelers caught carrying cocaine or heroin under their clothes or inside their bodies fell from 916 seizures in 1997 to 677 in fiscal 1998. The number had been rising every year.

Murphy said other reasons for the decline might be a temporary shift of some resources away from personal searches for a crackdown on cargo smuggling last year and inventive new tactics used by drug suppliers. For example, some now send a decoy passenger to distract inspectors while four or five drug couriers on the same flight slip by undetected.

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Only a small fraction of the 69 million passengers who pass through customs each year are questioned. About 50,000 were subjected to some level of body search in 1997. Searches usually begin with a frisk or pat-down and, with reasonable suspicion, can proceed to a strip search, X-ray or monitored bowel movement.

Drugs were found on about one-fourth of passengers subjected to partial or full strip searches, the agency says. The rate was close to 100 percent a decade ago, Kelly said, but smugglers have become more difficult to recognize.

Kelly acknowledged body searches can be traumatic and have become a "significant problem" for customs.

The Senate Finance Committee, the General Accounting Office and the Treasury Department are all investigating customs' airport searches. Illinois senators raised the issue last year after WMAQ-TV reported on complaints from black women searched at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

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