By Vince Echavaria
The leader of a group representing Los Angeles airport police has argued that police staffing levels have dropped during a time when Los Angeles International Airport is undergoing a massive modernization effort and when public safety needs to be kept a top priority.
Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, cited a report by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) finding that the number of proprietary, or sworn police officers, at Los Angeles World Airports has decreased to 497 officers currently from 514 in 2010. LAWA is the city agency that operates LAX as well as LA/Ontario International and Van Nuys airports.
The Airport Police union has been troubled by the reduction in sworn officers as it has occurred while LAX is in the midst of a major overhaul, including the construction of the new Tom Bradley International Terminal, where 18 new gates are being added, McClain said. The airport, which has been renovating several terminals and expanding dining and retail spaces, is continuing to see increases in passenger numbers, which McClain believes makes it imperative that law enforcement and safety remain a top priority.
McClain has also expressed concern at a report by a Los Angeles Employee Relations Board fact-finder that claimed that LAWA has a budget surplus in excess of $300 million but it under-resources and under-pays rank-and-file airport officers compared with contracted police officers at the airport department.
The airport police union has not had a new contract in nearly three years and not received salary increases in five years, McClain claimed.
“It just seems like LAWA missed the memo here because they’re sparing no expense on the expansion efforts but when it comes down to equipment and staffing and everything else, they pinch every penny they can,” McClain said.
The employee relations board fact-finder’s report recommended that LAWA offer a 9 percent wage increase to the airport police union, with 6 percent being retroactive, claiming that proprietary airport officers have been paid less than airport contracted Los Angeles Police Department officers. McClain’s group charges that LAWA has over-used contracted LAPD officers at the airports for work that could be done by airport officers.
Airport police personnel are not funded by the city but rather through passenger fees and other airport-related fees.
Airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said that the $300 million-estimate from the employee relations board fact-finder’s report is in fact not a surplus for LAWA. The $300 million-figure is what LAWA projected as its operating revenue after expenses in the 2012 bond official statement to the investment firm and was identified before the agency paid its debt services and other reserve requirements, Castles explained.
LAWA is currently in negotiations with the peace officers association regarding its contract renewal, Castles said. Asked about the claims of pay raises and police staffing levels, Castles said the airport agency cannot comment on labor negotiations.
“As a matter of policy, LAWA and the city of Los Angeles do not discuss labor negotiations publicly,” she said.
McClain said proprietary staffing levels will continue to be a concern due to retirements and other officers who may seek to join other departments with better salary and benefits.
“It’s going to be a systemic problem here in the near future, right at the time when (the airport is) expanding,” McClain said.
Echoing statements by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, McClain believes that having more officers helps with combating crime and keeping crime rates in the city as low as they’ve ever been.
“We can’t react to this, we have to be proactive and stay in front of it,” he said.
The police union president added that they’ve also had to fight for other resources, including new equipment and replacement police cars. In response to claims by McClain that LAWA has not kept public safety a top priority during the modernization effort, Castles responded, “that’s definitely at odds with the hundreds of millions of dollars we invest in airport security every year.”
The airport agency has showcased new security-related equipment at holiday travel news conferences and is implementing a new multi-million dollar surveillance camera system, Castles said.
In an interview with The Argonaut late last year LAWA Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey said the airport has a “very robust commitment to security.”
“We are always on a quest to be better than the day before. We do not in any way become complacent about, ‘OK we’re really good, we’ve got it handled;’ we’re always leaning into what can we do better. We have over twice as many law enforcement officers as any other airport of our category. We have very strong connections with the other agencies that work counterterrorism, so that multijurisdictional partnership is one of our major strengths,” Lindsey said.
McClain said the union remains hopeful that they can reach a contract agreement with LAWA that will help address their concerns.