Airport police are shrinking in number and losing autonomy to the LAPD, he says

By Gary Walker

McClain says LAX has an “incest-uous relationship” with LAPD

McClain says LAX has an “incest-uous relationship” with LAPD

Complaining that a reduction in force among airport police officers is fostering dependence on the LAPD for routine law enforcement activities at LAX, the head of the airport’s police union is calling for a nationwide search to find a “qualified replacement” for LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon.

In recent months, Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association President Marshall McClain has become increasingly vocal about what he calls a morale-sapping overreliance on the LAPD to fill in personnel gaps as the number of sworn airport officers has dropped to fewer than 500 — the lowest number since 2008.

Representatives for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that oversees LAX and Gannon’s department, declined to comment.

McClain stopped short of asking Gannon to resign, if only on a technicality.

“I’m not calling for it — yet,” McClain told The Argonaut. “The union hasn’t taken an official vote of no confidence yet, but we will be addressing it at our next general meeting, which will be held in the latter part of January.

If the union’s board were asked to vote today, “I think there would be enough votes for a no confidence vote,” he said.

While the union has  been at odds with airport management over declining numbers of airport police and the presence of LAPD officers at LAX, this is the first time McClain has publicly called for a new airport public safety leader.

Gannon was a 34-year veteran of the LAPD before retiring in 2012 and being appointed airport police chief that same year. Gannon’s LAPD ties have “hamstrung the progress toward airport police independence,” McClain said.

A U.S. Dept. of Transportation audit released in April found that LAX managers were unable to provide proper documentation for nearly $8 million in payments to the Los Angeles Police Department over the past five years. Federal officials required LAX officials to certify that LAPD officers are being paid only for necessary airport services.

“The natives are getting restless, so to speak. The incestuous relationship with LAPD has blossomed in terms of stunting our growth,” McClain said. “The Los Angeles Airport Police Department desperately needs a leader who understands the unique nature of airport law enforcement and is dedicated to fostering the department’s autonomy — not one who maintains unnecessary dependence on the LAPD and denies that there are problems that need to be addressed.”

The Los Angeles City Council unsuccessfully sought to merge the airport police with LAPD through a ballot measure nine years ago.

A 2012 UCLA Department of Public Policy report titled “The Optimal Law Enforcement Structure for Los Angeles International Airport” recommended maintaining the role of specialized LAPD units such as the SWAT team and bomb squad at LAX but giving airport police greater law enforcement control,

The study also recommended eliminating LAPD’s daily traffic patrols at the airport.

“We conclude that granting the Los Angeles World Airport Police increased control over policing would improve the airport’s organizational structure because it would eliminate a number of problems associated with having two law enforcement agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities,” the report states. “The new, streamlined organizational structure would improve communication, coordination and overall airport law enforcement operations as to allow [the airport police] to better prevent and respond to a terrorist attack.”

The UCLA study also touches on the conflicts between the law enforcement agencies.

“Despite the two departments’ proximal operational relationship, their history is characterized by cross-agency tension. In a general sense, this tension is due to each department’s perception that it is best able to handle policing duties at LAX,” the report found. “In addition, the repeated possibility of a merger between the two departments, last attempted in 2005, keeps the airport police and its union on guard.”