TSA calls for more police at checkpoints in airports

TSA calls for more police at checkpoints in airports
The TSA report calls for an increased police presence at high-traffic locations, such as airport ticket counters or screening areas, during peak travel times. Above, airport police patrol the area near Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport.
(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

The Transportation Security Administration has called for an increased police presence at its checkpoints at airports nationwide, one of several steps the agency plans to take to improve security after November’s deadly shooting at Los Angeles International Airport.

A 25-page report released by the agency Wednesday outlines 14 recommendations to be implemented at airports across the country, including mandatory active-shooter training for TSA personnel, regular testing of panic buttons at TSA checkpoints and streamlined emergency response technology. Costs have yet to be determined.

In an interview with The Times, TSA Administrator John Pistole said that although his agency “can’t prevent all bad things from happening,” the assessment offered a “measured response.”

“The bottom line of all this is … that we are doing everything we can to provide for the best possible safety and security,” Pistole said.


Authorities allege Paul Anthony Ciancia, now 24, targeted TSA officers in the roughly five-minute attack Nov. 1. Gerardo I. Hernandez, a 39-year-old father of two, became the agency’s first officer killed in the line of duty. Two other agents and a teacher were wounded.

Ciancia has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts, including murder and attempted murder, and is awaiting trial. U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty.

The shooting raised questions about airport security and emergency response, prompting a closer look at such things as communications systems and evacuation routes and how quickly paramedics enter active-shooter situations. Public safety agencies and LAX officials have already begun work on improvements to radio equipment, emergency phones and training for helping stranded passengers.

The airport’s own assessment, released last week, determined that communication problems between agencies led to a chaotic evacuation and delays in reaching victims. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the TSA report was a “good companion” to the airport’s assessment.


“Together they make a strong, holistic foundation for our efforts to improve what I believe to be a very safe airport,” he said.

The TSA’s review was based on meetings with law enforcement agencies, airport operators, union representatives and employees to gather feedback, the agency said. One of the primary concerns was the level of armed law enforcement at passenger checkpoints.

Although some airports assign police to fixed positions at such locations, others deploy roving patrols. LAX officials moved their officers from behind the passenger screening areas to patrols months before the shooting.

The TSA report calls for an increased police presence at high-traffic locations, such as ticket counters or screening areas, during peak travel times to “provide visible deterrence and quicker incident response time.” Airports using roving patrols will be asked to be at such locations 50% of the time, Pistole said.

LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon, who has defended the deployment of his officers, said the request was consistent with his current strategy. He said he did not initially think he would have to increase staffing to fulfill the request.

“I want to put my officers in front of screening, in front of ticketing areas, in baggage areas, in each of the terminals where I have specific concerns,” Gannon said. “The recommendation of the TSA still allows me to be flexible and to have my officers where I think the threat is greatest.”

Jeff Price, an aviation security expert who teaches at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said it made sense to not only increase the presence of airport police officers, but also keep them on the move.

“When you see a lot of armed law enforcement, not just at the checkpoint, but in those public areas — that’s just good security,” he said. “If you sit in one spot, you’re the blue canary. We know exactly where you’re at and when you’re busy.”


The TSA also sought improvements to emergency notification capabilities, with plans to install “several thousand” more panic buttons at checkpoints across the country, Pistole said. In addition, employee cellphones are now programmed with direct lines to airport police to avoid being routed through an outside agency’s 911 system.

An emergency phone and two of 12 panic buttons in LAX’s Terminal 3 were not working the day of the shooting, officials have said.

Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Assn., said he agreed with the major findings of the TSA’s review, but remained critical of the LAX response Nov. 1. He said many of the problems cited were “foreseen.”

“It’s unfortunate that the mistaken decisions of Chief Gannon and [Los Angeles World Airports Director] Gina Marie Lindsey are affecting airports across the nation,” McClain said. “They need to reorder their priorities on public safety.”

The TSA rejected some suggestions, however, including a controversial proposition advocated by the union that represents 45,000 TSA officers. For months, the American Federation of Government Employees has called for the creation of an armed unit of TSA officers — a request that was renewed Wednesday.

“Only an armed law enforcement unit within TSA can ensure the constant and consistent presence of sufficient law enforcement resources needed in the immediate area of the checkpoints and other key locations in order to prevent another tragedy,” union President J. David Cox said in a statement.

The TSA said that arming its officers would raise “jurisdictional and fiscal issues.” Pistole listed a number of reasons why: concerns over tactics, arrest authority and how officers’ other responsibilities might change.

“The vast, vast majority don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.


Pistole, Gannon, Cox and Lindsey are scheduled to testify about the shooting and the report Friday at a congressional hearing at LAX.

Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.