The Transportation Security Administration recommended Wednesday that armed law enforcement officers be posted at airport security checkpoints and ticket counters during peak hours after a review of last year’s fatal shooting at Los Angeles International Airport.
The 25-page report to Congress obtained by The Associated Press makes 14 recommendations that do not carry a price tag and are somewhat dependent on local authorities who provide airport security.
While airport security has been beefed up since 9/11, the shooting exposed communication problems and gaps in police patrols that left an LAX terminal without an armed officer for nearly 3 1/2 minutes as a gunman targeted TSA officers with a rifle Nov. 1.
The AP has reported that the two armed airport police officers assigned to Terminal 3 were on break that morning and hadn’t notified dispatchers as required. Months earlier, LAX had changed staffing plans to have officers roam terminals instead of staffing checkpoints such as the one the gunman approached.
TSA conducted the review of nearly 450 airports nationwide after Officer Gerardo Hernandez was killed in the agency’s first line-of-duty death. Two officers and a passenger were wounded. Paul Ciancia, 24, a Pennsville, N.J., native, has pleaded not guilty to 11 federal charges, including murder of a federal officer.
The review found that most TSA officers are concerned for their safety and want better security.
Report recommendations include requiring TSA employees, who are unarmed, to train for an active shooter incident. It specifically discarded the notion of creating an armed unit of TSA officers.
TSA Administrator John Pistole has said he doesn’t believe more guns at checkpoints are the solution, but the union representing 45,000 TSA officers said the recommendations strengthen their position to create an armed unit of TSA officers.
While the report is being presented to Congress, there is no specific action lawmakers must take.
Airports are run by local operators, and because each airport is different, each is responsible for creating its own security plan that must be approved by TSA. The agency has general guidelines that airport plans must meet, and an airport can be fined for violations.
“The current patchwork of local law enforcement agencies across the country inevitably leaves gaps in security, as we saw at LAX,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “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 like the one that occurred at LAX.”
The TSA also recommended installing more panic alarms, testing them weekly, and having them linked to security cameras.
The AP reported that although a TSA officer reported hitting a panic button, there was no evidence it happened. The TSA review found that about 2 percent of panic buttons in airports nationwide were not working.
At LAX, some panic buttons weren’t working and dispatchers couldn’t tell where the shooting was happening because a TSA manager who picked up an emergency phone quickly fled the gunman. The phone system didn’t identify the location.
With officers out of the terminal, an airline contractor called police dispatch directly on his cellphone, alerting officers nearly a minute and a half after the shooting began.
The report recommends airports conduct twice yearly active shooter training and exercises, and that TSA extend deployment of special teams of air marshals, baggage inspectors and others who conduct random security sweeps.
Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, released its own review last week finding the emergency response was hindered by communication and coordination problems. The 83-page report spotlighted flaws in various airport divisions and systems but didn’t single out individuals who were responsible.
It made no mention of the officers who were out of position or the policy change that had police officers roam the airport instead of staffing checkpoints full-time.
LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon has said flexibility is important and he doesn’t want to revisit stationing officers at checkpoints.
Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, whose district includes LAX, said the recommendations were a good first step in addressing concerns – specifically the lack of armed law enforcement at security checkpoints. Waters has called the airport’s emergency response an embarrassment.
A field hearing on the review before the Committee on Homeland Security is scheduled Friday in Los Angeles.
Committee member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a statement he has “lingering concerns” about TSA’s ability to communicate with emergency responders despite $13 billion spent since 9/11 to improve inter-agency communications.