Airport police chief and union are at odds over whether airport security has improved since TSA agent’s shooting death

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By Gary Walker

Roughly one year after TSA agent Genaro Hernandez was killed during the Nov. 1, 2013, shooting spree that shut down Los Angeles International Airport for hours, the head of the airport police union says LAX is no better prepared to handle a similar attack.

Flanked by current and former state lawmakers, Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association President Marshall McClain said during an Oct. 30 press conference outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal that the shrinking ranks of the airport police — from 514 in 2010 to 497 this year — has made keeping workers and passengers safe even more of a challenge.

“You should see police officers at some point when you come into the airport. I can tell you if you traveled through the airport five years ago you would have seen a more robust [airport police] presence than we have today,” McClain said.

Following the union press conference, Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon held his own press briefing and released a report detailing safety improvements that have been implemented since March.

The document highlights an upgraded public mass notification system plus new plans for deployment of officers and disaster response teams.

“What happened a year ago could happen, and has happened, anywhere in the United States. While I can’t guarantee that a shooting will never occur again at LAX, we will do everything we can to improve our preparedness for an emergency, our response, and our recovery efforts,” said Gannon, who is also deputy director of Homeland Security and law enforcement for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that oversees LAX.

The airport police actively work with the interagency Joint Regional Intelligence Center and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, said Gannon.

“This multi-agency regional approach to interceding in terrorist acts gives us our best option at identifying an attack before it occurs,” he said.

In the end, the union’s gripes have everything to do with funding and resources — in particular, less of it going to the airport police and more of it going to the Los Angeles Police Department, which also responds to emergencies at LAX. McClain said 911 calls from the airport are dispatched to LAPD, not to the LAX police.

“We saw when LAPD had their numbers raised to 10,000, the airport was increasing its passenger numbers and at the exact same time the airport police was at the other end of the spectrum.  That doesn’t make any sense. When we raise those questions and we hear, ‘We don’t have the financial resources for the airport police,’ that doesn’t make sense. Whenever we ask for more resources we get rebuffed,” McClain said.

McClain also denied that his union was merely engaged in a territorial spat with LAPD.

“It’s really not a turf war. This really is about money. This is about [the LAPD] trying to siphon money from the city coffers — nothing more. We can work with anyone, whether it’s LAPD, the Sheriff’s or anybody,” McClain said.  “This is about what’s best for the citizens and the passengers and keeping the city safe and the airport safe.”

Asked to describe relations with management at Los Angeles World Airports, McClain said they were “tenuous at best.”

Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D- Gardena), one of the lawmakers who stood with McClain, wrote legislation to enhance the authority and responsibilities of LAX police officers that became law earlier this year. Bradford’s Assembly Bill 128 gave LAX police the same status as municipal officers. Prior to that law, LAPD officers had to be called in to assist airport police with routine functions, as LAX officers lacked authority to seize firearms or other deadly weapons, impound cars and enforce laws related to making false bomb reports.

Airport police officers undergo the same training and hiring practices as LAPD and attend the same police academy.

“The [city] charter spells out very clearly that we are to be an autonomous agency. That’s what the voters voted for and that’s what they reaffirmed when it was on the ballot in 2005,” said McClain, referring to a defeated municipal ballot measure that sought to merge LAPD with LAX police.

Bradford’s predecessor, former Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey) also stood with McClain and had authored legislation similar to Assembly Bill 128 during her two years in the Assembly.

“In the past year not much has happened [since the Hernandez shooting].  In fact, very little has happened,” Butler said. “This is about public safety and keeping us all safe.”

gary@argonautnews.com

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