A year after LAX shooting, airport cops question security
By Sharon McNary
KPCC 89.3 AM Radio (NPR), Pasadena (CA)
Airport Police Officer O. Gatewood on bike patrol outside Tom Bradley International Airport Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.
Saturday marks one year since the fatal shooting of TSA agent Gerardo Hernandez at Los Angeles International Airport, a grim anniversary that the head of the airport police union used to question the state of airport security.
Marshall McClain, head of the association that represents rank-and-file officers of the Los Angeles Airport Police officers, called for the city’s Police Commission Inspector General to audit the airport police department’s spending on people and equipment.
At a news conference at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, McClain questioned the amount of airport money, raised via landing fees paid by airlines and passengers, that is used to pay officers of LAPD, an agency which is separate and independent of the LAX Airport Police Department.
At a time when the airport is spending billions of dollars to build a new international air terminal, the staffing and equipment of the airport police is stagnant, he said.
“Our police fleet is dilapidated, our police station is circa 1950-60, we’ve outgrown it years ago,” McClain said. “The solutions are not that complicated, but it all comes down to money.”
Airport police officers have been working under a labor contract that expired in June.
McClain said the shooting last Nov. 1, in which an armed man got past security screening equipment and shot to death a TSA agent, revealed holes in airport police staffing and shortcomings in equipment and collaborative preparations with other agencies.
One example: multiple mobile command posts, including one each for the Airport Police and LAPD, were set up at different airport locations, creating confusion as to chain of command. The radio systems of the two police agencies and the fire department do not operate on the same frequencies, adding to the communication difficulties. Also, LAX emergency dispatchers were overwhelmed with calls, and thousands of the 150,000 daily passengers were expelled from locked-down terminals without instructions as to where to go.
McClain said that substantive improvements in security have not been made since the shooting.
LAX Airport Police Chief Pat Gannon called his own news conference to dispute McClain’s claims, especially that the department was understaffed. The airport police, which patrols LAX, Ontario and Van Nuys airports, is only three officers short of its authorized staffing of 537 officers, Gannon said.
Gannon insisted that the fact that airport police had captured the shooter within about five minutes of the outbreak of shooting proved he had police deployed correctly last year. Of some 500 officers who responded to the shooting, 100 were airport police, the rest from LAPD and other agencies.
“We rely on our partners to come help us, and we work with those partners constantly to address the threat as best we can,” Gannon said. He acknowledged that the airport was in chaos following the shooting and terminal shut-downs, but he said the chaos was not within police ranks.
He defended the use of LAPD officers on airport property as a necessary and productive partnership. LAPD officers work alongside airport police on various crime, drug and immigration or customs task forces, with police bomb detection dogs.
“We have enough personnel to keep this airport safe,” Gannon said. “The premise would have to be that the reason we had a shooting last November was because we were unsafe, and that was not the case.”
His aides distributed a long list of security improvements added since last year’s fatal shooting. They included several new electronic ways of notifying the public of an emergency, and keeping on reserve supplies to aid stranded passengers in the aftermath of a disruption in travel.
The airport police are also working on better tactics for organizing multi-agency responses to emergencies.
Still to be accomplished are installing an airport-wide public address system and getting first responders’ radios working on the same frequency when necessary. As a stopgap measure, Gannon said, his department has provided LAPD and Fire Department crews with Airport Police hand-held radios.