How I Made It: A circuitous route to the L.A. World Airports police force

How I Made It
Ethel L. McGuire is in charge of homeland security and intelligence as assistant police chief for L.A. World Airports. Her work includes vulnerability assessments and emergency operations and planning.
(Christina House / Christina House)

The gig: Ethel L. McGuire is assistant chief of the Los Angeles World Airports police force, in charge of homeland security and intelligence. Los Angeles International Airport is the sixth-busiest airport in the world, a major gateway to Asia and host to traveling dignitaries from across the globe. The police force also handles Ontario International Airport and the nation’s busiest general aviation airport, Van Nuys Airport. Small wonder then that L.A. World Airports has one of Southern California’s largest law enforcement agencies, with more than 1,100 officers and staff.

A big plate: McGuire, who joined the airport police in 2010, said her work includes K-9 and other specialized units, vulnerability assessments and emergency operations and planning, which includes the department’s equivalent of a special weapons and tactics team. McGuire’s duties also involve overseeing dignitary protection and credential checking for official visits and helping to decide how to deploy forces. McGuire worked frequently with airport officials in her previous capacity with the FBI office in Los Angeles supervising counterterrorism programs. “I knew the players and it was a job I knew I could do,” she said.

Pioneering career: McGuire was the 47th African American woman to become an FBI special agent. McGuire also became part of the bureau’s only mother-daughter duo, when the elder of her two daughters, Marlo, also became a special agent.

Straight outta Compton: McGuire was born in Glendale but grew up in Compton during “a time when women were still being steered toward careers like teaching or nursing,” or they were urged to be homemakers. McGuire initially had no problem following that script, attending Texas Southern University only to be a lot closer than California to her boyfriend and future husband, Kenneth. “Before I went, I didn’t even know it was an HBC, a historically black college.”


Blackboard jungle: After graduation, McGuire joined her husband in Memphis, where he was a school administrator. She became a teacher, handling health, biology and science. She also taught physical education and coached. Some of her students were ninth-graders at one of the city’s toughest schools. She wouldn’t know until years later how mastering groups of rude, hormone-addled teens would help her law enforcement career. McGuire remembers substitute teaching a class of rowdy students who thought they could rattle her enough to skip a long-planned exam. “I got up on top of a desk,” McGuire recalled with a laugh. “I gave them five minutes” to settle down, McGuire said, “and then they took that test.”

Career No. 2: McGuire said she loved teaching but became tired of the daily battle. In 1982, she launched a new career at Target Corp., entering the management trainee program. McGuire had once aspired to her mother’s career as a cashier at a grocery store, but now she had bigger plans. “I worked 80-hour weeks,” McGuire said, rising to the post of store manager, “But I thought, ‘No, this still isn’t it for me.’”

Government work: Looking for something new, McGuire applied to the federal government for a job in 1985 when she was 32 and already planning for her retirement years. “I was hoping to get a job as an executive secretary. I was looking forward to having a pension.” But when McGuire finally was contacted in 1987, she was in for a shock. The U.S. Justice Department was calling to offer her a job — and not as a secretary.

Tragedy as motivator: Training to become an FBI agent was an ordeal, with long endurance runs on days when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. Sometimes, she would finish last and instructors would hurl insults. At those and other difficult times, she would recall a more devastating time, the death of her second child, an infant son. That was the measure of “the level of pain I could endure without giving up,” McGuire said. “There is nothing more devastating for a parent than the loss of a child. If I could get through that, I knew I could make it through anything.”


Just say no: Washout days, when trainees were sent home, were all too common. Those who had failed a test packed their bags, signed an exit form and were gone the same day. McGuire finally faced one on the shooting range, missing the standard of 90 target hits out of 100 by one shot. “When they said, ‘sign this,’ I said no. I just wasn’t willing to quit,” she said. McGuire turned the form over and proceeded to write a lecture on how someone with no prior firearm experience and only limited training ought to be praised for doing so well and should get more training. The FBI decided she was right.

The hardest part: McGuire spent 23 years with the bureau, working in various parts of the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis and at FBI headquarters in Washington. She managed terrorism and gang task forces and crisis response for the 2008 Summer Olympics and for presidential inaugurations. She even worked undercover as a prostitute before rising to the role of section chief, but the most difficult aspect of the job was the effect on her family. “For 16 of the 23 years of my FBI career,” McGuire said, “I was away from my husband and raising our daughters while he visited when he could, or vice versa.”

Flexible style: “I have an open-door policy,” McGuire said. “I try not to micromanage. I believe in delegating responsibility and making sure people have the training and positive reinforcement.”

Career advice: “Don’t be in a hurry,” McGuire said. “You’re not going to be the police chief tomorrow. You need to learn how to be a good sergeant, a good lieutenant, a good captain. Because then you can speak with knowledge.” She also tells women juggling careers and family that they shouldn’t be surprised if men don’t carry an equal load. “There are still different expectations for men and women,” McGuire said. “It’s the life we lead as working women, and it’s not going to change soon.”

Personal: McGuire and her husband recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. Their other daughter, Lindsey, is an attorney. McGuire loves to go on long road trips with her family. “I think there are only four states I haven’t seen yet,” she said.