How best to station armed law enforcement officers at airports was the focus of a congressional hearing at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, one of several reviews of the emergency response to November’s shooting rampage that left a federal security agent dead.
During a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security, contrasting views were presented in the aftermath of a decision at LAX early last year to shift police from fixed positions at passenger screening areas to roving patrols.
In the Nov. 1 shooting, a gunman armed with an assault-style rifle entered Terminal 3 and proceeded through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint unopposed. After the killing of TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez and wounding of two of his co-workers and a teacher, airport police shot and captured the suspect, Paul Anthony Ciancia, now 24.
Critics, including former high-ranking law enforcement officers at LAX, have contended that changing the police assignment protocol that had been in place since 9/11 compromised the safety of screening areas.
Much of Friday’s discussion centered on the TSA’s recommendation that armed police officers be present at busy ticket counters and security checkpoints — such as passenger screening areas — during peak travel times.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said the “real vulnerability” is immediately in front of screening stations where passengers and their bags are searched. Stationing armed officers in front of such checkpoints “would probably be ideal,” he said. However, McCaul questioned whether TSA officers should be given that responsibility.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes LAX, told the panel a consistent law enforcement presence is needed at passenger checkpoints. But she added that assigning officers to fixed positions and to patrol are “not mutually exclusive.”
Waters and others have proposed assigning police officers to checkpoints with the freedom to patrol up to 300 feet away. “I’ve heard the arguments on both sides. I want to put the issue to rest,” she said.
J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 45,000 TSA workers, reiterated the union’s position that the TSA should create its own unit of armed officers trained to protect passenger screening areas and other security stations.
“Unarmed, unprotected and exposed, TSA officers at the Terminal 3 checkpoint were easy targets for a man with an irrational hatred of the TSA and specifically TSA officers,” Cox said.
TSA Administrator John S. Pistole has resisted the idea of arming TSA officers, citing concerns over cost, arrest authority and a possible reduction in the number of agents available to work as passenger and luggage screeners.
Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon again defended his decision to move officers from checkpoints to patrols, saying it was a way to eliminate predictability in security. He said the previous security assignment policy probably would not have saved Hernandez.
Gannon, whose officers were praised for a quick response, told the panel that the airport’s strategy is designed to deal with threats that can come from the entrance to the airport, the curb areas outside passengers terminals, TSA checkpoints and boarding gates.
“If you’re predictable, then you are vulnerable,” he said. “And that’s what I don’t think we should be.”