Are TSA screeners really law enforcement ‘officers’?

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Travelers at Denver International Airport line up before a TSA checkpoint. (Photo: Jim Spellman / CNN)

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WASHINGTON — Give them guns, or take away their badges?

The death of Transportation Security Administration Officer Gerardo Hernandez and wounding of two other officers on Friday at Los Angeles International Airport is, predictably, raising questions about whether officers should be armed.

But the incident also is reigniting the debate over whether screeners should be called “officer” in the first place.

Could that title, which critics say wrongly implies that screeners carry guns and have arrest powers, be giving the public a skewed view of their jobs? Could it be placing them in greater danger?

For the first four years of its existence, the TSA did not call its screeners “officers,” nor did it dress them as such.

But in 2005, in an effort to professionalize the force and boost morale, the TSA reclassified screeners as “transportation security officers.” In 2007, the agency issued screeners uniforms with blue shirts, and the following year, it replaced the embroidered logos with metal badges.

The result, critics say, is a work force of more than 45,000 people who hold the job of “officer” in name only.

Now, in the aftermath of the first death of an officer in the line of duty, officials are delicately trying to answer questions about airport screener safety and what should be done to improve it.

In his two public appearances since the shooting, TSA Administrator John Pistole, a career FBI agent before moving to the TSA in 2010, has said the agency will review officer safety but sidestepped questions about whether they should be armed.

Officer safety “is something we have dealt with really since the standup of TSA, knowing that in many respects TSA employees are the first line of defense when it comes to airport security particularly,” Pistole said Saturday.

“And so given this tragedy, we will obviously look at and review our policies with airport police both here at LAX and of course around the country.”

Officer safety is “something that we have to assess, evaluate and then see what the best approach is, knowing that in the final analysis we can’t guard against all threats and all risks,” Pistole said.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called the idea of arming officers a “a big mistake.”

“You have literally hundreds and hundreds of armed police officers roaming every major airport in America. And I don’t think arming another 40 or 50 or 60 thousand people … would have prevented this incident from happening,” he said.

“When the individual removed the firearm, began firing, the response mechanism kicked in. So I personally think (arming screeners) is a bad idea.”

Providing guns to officers would be a weighty challenge. Currently, the only TSA officers who have weapons are the federal air marshals, who were largely drawn from the ranks of law enforcement or the military and who undergo rigorous firearms training.

It would be a major effort to train and equip the TSA screener work force, which includes almost 50,000 people.

Further, security experts say, providing firearms training for so many people would be costly. Officers currently need either a high school diploma or one year of security work, and they earn approximately $25,500 to $50,500. Guns alone would cost millions.

A change would be time-consuming, distracting officers from their mission: finding people and items that present threats to aircraft.

And the change would introduce weapons into checkpoints, where they could be grabbed by deranged passengers and used against officers.

On Monday, the union representing officers called for the development of “a new class of TSA officers with law enforcement status” to protect airport checkpoints.

“A larger and more consistent armed presence in screening areas would be a positive step in improving security for both TSOs and the flying public,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

In 2011, amid allegations that TSA officers had conducted intrusive strip searches, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, introduced the Stop TSA’s Reach in Policy Act, or STRIP Act. The bill, which got at least 25 co-sponsors, would have prohibited screeners from using the title “officer” and would have banned them from wearing metal badges and uniforms resembling police officer uniforms.

Mission creep

Meanwhile, airport police department unions have complained about TSA “mission creep.”

Mission creep “threatens the security of the airport,” representatives of the American Alliance of Airport Police Officers wrote in a letter to Pistole in September 2012.

“TSA has expanded the scope of their authority beyond screening areas to more traditional ‘police’ work without clear lines of delineation with airport police, jeopardizing public safety, contributing to a break in chain-of-command, and delaying timely law enforcement responses,” the group wrote.

“TSA agents are attempting to investigate and/or correct (security) breaches,” the letter said, endangering the public, delaying police involvement and causing travel disruptions.

TSA employees should be restricted to conducting passenger and bag screening, the letter said.

The letter was signed by Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, and Paul Nunziato, president of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association.

McClain said the TSA never responded to the letter.

In the letter, the alliance said airport police have had a “long and productive” history working with federal law enforcement officers and the TSA’s air marshals. “The only federal entity with which our officers experience constant tension is with TSA non-law enforcement operations,” it reads.

What’s next

Although congress could decide to give TSA officers guns or remove their badges, there is a range of other options it could take.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, specifically mentioned the increased use of VIPR teams, which pair armed air marshals with other agencies to patrol airports and other transportation venues.

“I think that with better coordination with local law enforcement should help tremendously,” McCaul said.

But McCaul placed little stock in other suggestions such as moving checkpoints closer to terminal doors.

“It’s very difficult to stop these types of attacks,” McCaul said. “Anybody can show up, as we saw in the (Washington Navy Yard shooting) with the shotgun, in this case with the semi-automatic.

“It’s almost like an open shopping mall. So, it’s very difficult to protect. But these VIPR teams, I think, with local law enforcement can’t provide that needed security. We are going to be reviewing this along with the director of TSA.”

Ridge expressed a similar sentiment.

“At the end of the day, I think there are certain kinds of risks for which there is no sensible, thoughtful, reasonable, economically appropriate way to abandon or to eradicate. And this happens to be one of them, at airports,” Ridge said.

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