By Jeffrey Hawkins
Security in U.S. airports continues to be a concern as well as a large expense for law enforcement, DHS, and the general public.
I have written and lectured a lot about the obsession of passenger screening since 9/11 and the fact that we are not paying attention to other areas of the airport – be it cars crashing through security gates onto runways or not paying attention to all the people before they pass through TSA checkpoints.
We have not witnessed many attacks inside U.S. airport terminals before the security checkpoints, but there have been a few.
In May of this year a man entered Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport terminal and fired several shots with a rifle before being shot at by an Air Marshal and then taking his own life; it did not appear he was there to kill anyone because he fired in the air, rather than at people.
And the last incident I recall in a U.S. airport terminal was in 2002 at LAX when a man opened fire at an El Al Airlines ticket counter, killing two and wounding four others before being shot by an El Al Security Officer.
There have been other horrific attacks in the past abroad in airport terminals, most notably the 1972 attack in Israel killing 26 and wounding 78, 1985 when terrorists with rifles and hand-grenades carried out coordinated attacks in Rome and Vienna that left 17 dead and 117 wounded , and recently in 2011 at Moscow’s airport when a bomb killed 35 and wounded more than 100.
As a frequent flyer, I spend a lot of time in airports. Since most of my time is spent waiting out delays (the joys of traveling), I have a lot of down time to watch people, security and police.
In the past month I have had the “pleasure” of visiting seven different airports around the country, from small regional to major international airports, and I am always curious about the role police play because it does not appear consistent.
Most times, I see police vehicles parked around the airport and an occasional uniformed officer walking through, but rarely do they have a strong, visible presence.
I do know, like most security practitioners, there are many things in place that your average passenger does not see, but I feel there is something to be said about seeing a visible uniformed presence as a deterrent…but maybe that is because this is my line of work?
Recently, I observed a uniformed police officer standing in one position in a terminal with an AR-type rifle, which is a rare sight in U.S. airports. I stopped and spoke with him and, like most LEO’s, after they find out who you are and what you do, they open up and chat.
I asked him about his presence and especially the rifle, wondering if there was a threat or was this routine; he assured me his presence was routine, but he did add something that I had not heard.
He said he was part of the Airport Police’s Special Response Unit (SWAT, SRT, etc.) and that they rotate in and out with all their gear, including the rifle. He said if he had it his way they would be out in the terminal all the time, but said that usually within 20 minutes, someone will complain about their presence.
He went on to tell me that every time they are out, some passenger will complain to the police department or airlines that “the man with the rifle” was scaring their kids or even stating that the officer had the rifle pointed at them (note that during the time I observed him, the gun was on a sling over his shoulder and was always pointed down).
In contrast, at another airport I visit frequently, there used to be a visible police presence, but as the flights at that airport became less, the police took to neighboring highways to do traffic enforcement (which they have the full authority to do). One airport employee told me that police feel like they are not needed in the terminals because it is not busy, so they go off-property to write speeding tickets.
So, given the threats, the security needs, and the expense, what is the actual role airport police play in securing airport property, terminals, entrances, and parking garages?
Should they be carrying out traditional police functions or should they be more geared towards security?
Your opinion and feedback is always appreciated.