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TSA Considers Arming Agents At Airports, Local Cops Increase Presence

Nov 03, 2013 9:00 am

Skift Take

TSA agents aren’t law enforcement officers so arming them doesn’t appear to be a viable solution. Still, there needs to be an armed presence somewhere near the security lines at airports and it’s mind-boggling that there isn’t one as a matter of course already.

— Dennis Schaal

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Lucy Nicholson  / Reuters

LAPD officers turn away passengers trying to enter terminal 3 after a shooting at Los Angeles airport (LAX), California November 1, 2013. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters


Local police will increase their presence at U.S. airports and the Transportation Security Administration will evaluate its procedures after a gunman killed an agency officer at Los Angeles International Airport.

The agency will discuss airport security issues “writ large” with Congress, including whether to arm officers, TSA Administrator John Pistole said at a press conference in Los Angeles yesterday.

“Obviously this gives us great concern,” said Pistole, who met with the family of Officer Gerardo Hernandez, 39, the first TSA employee killed in the line of duty, and other victims of the Nov. 1 shootings. “We will look at what our policies and procedures are and what provides the best possible security.”

Anybody can show up at an airport security checkpoint with a weapon and the TSA needs to coordinate better with local police forces who provide security for its unarmed airport screeners, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” today.

“It’s almost like an open shopping mall,” McCaul said. “It’s very difficult to protect.”

Suspect Charged

The suspect, Paul Ciancia, 23, was accused of killing a federal officer on duty and of using a firearm to perform an act of violence at an international airport, according to a criminal complaint filed yesterday in Los Angeles federal court. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Ciancia is hospitalized and unresponsive so police haven’t been able to interview him, David L. Bowdich, the FBI special agent in charge, said at the press conference yesterday. It’s unclear when he will make his first court appearance.

Ciancia, of Los Angeles, singled out TSA employees and said in a handwritten note that he wanted “to instill fear in their traitorous minds,” Bowdich said.

Pistole didn’t give an opinion about arming his officers while differentiating between the missions of airport police and his employees, whose principal job is to make sure explosives don’t get onto flights.

The shootings halted flights in and out of the Los Angeles airport, the fifth-busiest in the U.S. by domestic passengers, stranding thousands and delaying flights across the U.S. The biggest carriers are United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines, AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc.

Flights Disrupted

As many as 866 flights, including 40 yesterday, were canceled, delayed or rerouted.

Enhanced security at Los Angeles will remain for the foreseeable future, said Patrick Gannon, the airport police chief, who didn’t give details. Passengers should feel safe with the additional resources, Gannon said.

“We’ll keep it going as long as we think it’s necessary,” Gannon said. “We will continue a very high profile.”

Airports and the TSA customarily decline to discuss details of security procedures and personnel use beyond acknowledging visible safeguards such as checkpoints. That was the case again yesterday with the city of Chicago, which runs O’Hare International, the second-busiest U.S. airport.

O’Hare and Chicago Midway are on “heightened awareness,” said Karen Pride, a city aviation department spokeswoman. A “multilayered approach” to security there includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chicago police and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with federal air marshals, she said.

“These people are staffed at the airport 24 hours a day,” Pride said in a telephone interview.

Trading Gunfire

Witnesses described havoc when gunfire broke out at 9:20 a.m. local time in Terminal 3, home to JetBlue Airways Corp. and Virgin America Inc. Police traded gunfire with Ciancia, wounding him and taking him into custody, authorities said. Ciancia had more than 100 rounds of ammunition, according to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Seven people were injured, including five who were shot, Bowdich said. Two of those were TSA officers.

George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Virginia, described the Los Angeles incident as a “societal problem rather than a specifically aviation-related problem.”

Law enforcement and airport officials can be expected to move quickly to figure out how to prevent similar incidents in the future, analysts said in the aftermath of the shooting.

‘Tight Community’

“The aviation law-enforcement community is a very tight community,” said Jeff Price, an aviation consultant with Leading Edge Strategies in Arvada, Colorado. “Everyone is going to start talking.”

“The first thing we have to look at is, did we do everything that could have been done?” Price said. “There’s a certain level of this you can’t prevent.”

Arming TSA employees — as suggested by their union after the shooting — may not be practical, Price said.

“The only way I would be encouraged in arming people is if they were fully trained law enforcement officers,” Price said. “You don’t just hand a screener a gun.”

Hamlin said creating more layers of security runs “the risk of creating more and more targets. I’m not sure you change procedures at all.”

Protecting Protectors

“The TSA is there to make sure it doesn’t happen on an airplane and as sad as yesterday was, they were successful,” Hamlin said. “How do you set up a system to protect the protectors?”

The incident may indicate a need to improve detection of “the garden-variety unstable individual who can commit violent acts” after years of industry and government focus on terrorist threats, said Richard Bloom, chief academic officer and professor of security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

Most emotionally disturbed people don’t commit violent acts, which makes it harder to identify high-risk individuals, he said.

“As far out as you push a more highly secured area, even all the way to surround the whole airport, the event can always occur just outside that new area,” he said.

Six people were sent to area hospitals, according to James Featherstone, interim Los Angeles fire chief. Officials halted departures from the airport, evacuated terminals and closed freeway exits.

Officers Assaulted

TSA officers are assaulted almost daily, said J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 45,000 agency employees. The agency was formed by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to take over responsibility for aviation security from the airlines.

The public views them as law enforcement because they wear uniforms and have badges, yet they aren’t trained the same way.

“People will assault the officers and walk away,” Cox said at a briefing.

TSA officers in Los Angeles wore black mourning ribbons across their badges yesterday in memory of their slain colleague.

–With assistance from Christopher Palmeri, Shivaune Field and Edvard Pettersson in Los Angeles, Phil Milford in Wilmington, Delaware, Caroline Chen in New York, Jeff Plungis and Dan Hart in Washington, Rachel Layne in Boston and Greg Ahlstrand in Hong Kong. Editors: Ann Hughey, Vince Golle

To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net; Tim Catts in New York at tcatts1@bloomberg.net; James Nash in Los Angeles at jnash24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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