The debate over the presence of armed police officers at airport passenger screening areas continued Friday as lawmakers met at Los Angeles International Airport to take a fresh look at November’s deadly shooting and the steps airport and federal officials have taken in its wake.
Members of the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Transportation Security heard testimony Friday about the Nov. 1, 2013, shooting, which raised questions about airport security and emergency response. Both the airport and Transportation Security Administration issued reports this month summarizing the incident and their policy changes.
Much of Friday’s discussion centered on the TSA’s request that more armed police officers be present at busy airport checkpoints – such as ticket counters and screening areas – during peak travel times.
Months before the LAX incident, airport officials moved their officers from fixed positions behind screening areas to roving patrols throughout the airport. Some have criticized that move, saying it made the checkpoint more vulnerable.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said he thought the “real vulnerability” was in front of screening areas, before passengers and their bags are searched. He said that although having armed officers stationed in front of such checkpoints “would probably be ideal,” resources were an issue.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes LAX, said having officers at fixed-post positions and the more mobile patrols “were not mutually exclusive.” She cited the need for flexibility and policing that was not predictable for a potential threat.
Pat Gannon, the airport police chief, continued to defend his decision to move his officers.
“I think if you’re predictable, then you are vulnerable. And that’s what I don’t think we should be,” he said.
Marshall McClain, the head of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Assn., said he thought it would take a mandate for the armed officers to return to the checkpoints. He also criticized the idea that removing them from the area would not have stopped the Nov. 1 shooting.
“It was short-sighted to say that removing a deterrent at the checkpoints had no effect,” he said.
Gerardo I. Hernandez became the first TSA officer killed in the line of duty when a gunman opened fired at LAX’s Terminal 3. Two other TSA officers and a teacher were wounded.
Hernandez's widow and the wounded officers attended Friday's hearing.
Authorities allege Paul Anthony Ciancia, now 24, targeted TSA screening personnel during the roughly five-minute attack. He has pleaded not guilty to 11 federal charges – including murder and attempted murder – and is awaiting trial.
Lawmakers commended Gannon’s department for what they described as a quick response, noting it took about four minutes for his officers to shot and wound Ciancia and take him into custody.
But they also noted that had Ciancia not allegedly targeted TSA personnel, the rampage could have been far more deadly.
“We would have seen a much greater loss of life,” McCaul said. “Dozens, if not hundreds, of people could have been killed.
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