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LAX Police Could Land Under the City’s Control

Times Staff Writer

Officers of one police department at Los Angeles International Airport wear dark blue uniforms with gold buttons. A second force dons dark blue uniforms with silver buttons.

About 310 airport police officers work out of a nondescript facility behind Centinela Airport Medical Clinic on the north side of LAX. The 50-member Los Angeles Police Department substation is housed in a tiny trailer on the airport’s south side.

Both departments patrol the airport’s horseshoe-shaped road, its nine terminals and its perimeter. Both get trained to drive on the crowded airfield. And both believe they should be in charge of security at the world’s fifth-busiest airport.

“One issue keeps coming up, and no one has ever addressed it, and that is that the substation is out here and what is their mission here?” said Bernard J. Wilson, chief of the airport police. “It doesn’t make any sense to have their officers follow our officers around.”

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His counterpart at the LAPD says the substation’s mission -- airport security -- duplicates that of the airport police.

“It would work better if there was just one police department at the airport,” said Capt. James V. Bower, who runs the LAPD’s airport substation. “The airport police is small, that’s enough to do routine things, but when something significant happens they have to call LAPD. It’s much easier for LAPD to talk with LAPD and not go through airport police to get things done.”

The airport police force, which has gold buttons on its uniforms, works to prevent crime at LAX. LAPD, which has silver buttons on its uniforms, responds after a crime has occurred and provides officers at security checkpoints.

No matter who is in charge, both departments concede they need the other -- airport police say they need LAPD’s specialized units such as the bomb squad, and LAPD says it cannot match the depth of resources provided by the airport police.

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Voters in Los Angeles can weigh in on the issue Tuesday. Measure A, if it receives a simple majority of the vote, would transfer control of the airport police from the Airport Commission to the City Council.

The measure’s opponents -- the airlines, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, several former airport directors and the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. -- fear that if it passes, the council will merge the 59-year-old airport police department with the LAPD. Six council members favor a merger; five are opposed. A merger would require 10 votes of the 15-member council.

If a merger occurred, it’s unclear how many airport police officers and the 400 support staff and security officers in the department, would become LAPD employees. Consultants hired by the airport agency found that a merger would cost Los Angeles an additional $30 million a year. The city’s legislative analyst has said that figure may be inflated.

Measure A proponents -- LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, the Police Commission, Mayor James K. Hahn and his mayoral opponent, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa -- say it’s inefficient to have two police agencies at the airport.

The “No on A” campaign says doing away with airport police could put passengers in jeopardy. Mailers sent out across the city warn: “Don’t risk wasting millions of tax dollars to fix something that isn’t broken. Especially when it puts airport security at risk and takes LAPD officers off our streets.”

The committee formed to fight Measure A, which so far has raised about $375,000 from unions and individuals, says it must educate voters to overcome Bratton’s endorsement of the initiative.

“This is a major policy issue that the public hasn’t got a clue about,” said John Driscoll, a former executive director of the city’s airport agency. “What I’m afraid of is people will say, ‘Well, gee, we all like Bratton and let’s go do it.’ ”

Proponents of the measure do not have a formal campaign and are relying on Bratton to promote it.

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“The idea of two separate police forces economically doesn’t make sense,” Bratton said recently on KABC-TV Channel 7. “From an organizational standpoint [it] doesn’t make sense, and from a practical standpoint, both in day-to-day operations, but, more importantly, when we have an emergency.”

Most of the country’s commercial airports have a stand-alone police force, or contract out for security services.

The debate over Measure A has caused tension between the two departments at LAX, with both sides trading on stereotypes about the other. The LAPD alleges that airport police lack training and experience.

“Airport police, from the way I understood it, were like airport security guards, although they’re really trying to get to be more like police,” said LAPD Officer Ron McNally, who works at the LAX substation.

Airport police get the same training as the LAPD. They also receive at least 80 additional hours of training every two years on airport-specific topics. LAPD officers receive 15 hours of airport-related courses every two years.

Airport police say there’s a culture of arrogance at the LAPD that doesn’t fit well with a job that requires daily interaction with passengers and airline and airport employees.

“There’s a cultural mind-set that they are the one and only true police department in this city,” said airport police Capt. Gary Gray.

Turnover at the LAPD has also been an issue. LAPD rotates officers in and out of its bureaus, and the substation has had a turnover of 16% in the last two years. In the same period, the airport police had a turnover of 1%.

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City officials have discussed merging the two forces for decades, but the idea has never gained political support. The issue came to the fore again last summer after several incidents, including a high-speed chase involving airport police in Inglewood that left a pedestrian critically injured, and a TV report that showed airport police loafing on the job.

The City Council voted earlier this year to ask residents if the City Charter should be changed to transfer control of the airport police from the Airport Commission to the council.

At the airport’s buzzing dispatch center, operators in front of banks of large television monitors direct airport police to 250 calls, on average, a day. LAPD officers respond to calls they hear on the airport police radio frequency but answer fewer calls on average than airport police.

Airport police officers on bikes, on foot and in cruisers spend their days looking for thieves, searching for bombs and writing tickets.

On a breezy afternoon recently, Officer Burt Davis rode his mountain bike between luggage carts, idling aircraft and catering trucks. As he comes around the corner at Terminal 1, a baggage handler snuffs a cigarette underneath his boot.

Davis, a 19-year airport police veteran, asks the worker what’s under his foot. He reluctantly reveals the smoldering butt. It’s illegal to smoke on the airfield, and Davis writes him a ticket.

In the terminals, Officer Robert Corchado and his canine partner, Rody, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, search for explosives.

Rody drags Corchado along as he sniffs handbags, computer cases and carry-on luggage in Terminal 1.

Rody doesn’t pause after taking a quick whiff of Barbara Garver’s hamburger, directing his snout downward to her book and other belongings.

“You get used to seeing anything anymore when it comes to security,” Garver says as she waits for a flight to New Orleans.

On the airfield near the sand dunes, the department’s Emergency Services Unit is practicing what to do if a hijacked jet arrives at LAX.

Officer George Holt, an instructor, and his team practice how to communicate with pilots and hoist a camera on a long pole to peer inside the aircraft.

Holt, who transferred to the airport police a year and a half ago after the city’s housing police shut down, said the learning curve at LAX was steeper than he expected.

“I figured, OK, I’ve been a cop for 15 years, and a sergeant for seven,” Holt said. “But I realized you can take all that experience and put a cop in an airport, but that doesn’t make him an airport cop.”


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