Protecting Airport Screeners Defies Simple Solution

Officials were split over whether arming TSA agents would make them safer

The challenge to prevent a recurrence of Friday's one-man terror attack at LAX is eliciting a range of proposals to modify airport security.

But so far, it appears reaching a consensus won't be a simple matter.

"We feel a larger and more consistent armed presence in screening areas would be a positive step," said J. David Cox, Sr., President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents the federal employees who staff airport screening stations.

When the Transportation Security administration (TSA) was created in response to the 9-11 terror attacks, it was decided after much debate that screeners would not be armed nor trained to serve as full-fledged law enforcement officers. Their responsibilities at commercial airports were limited to screening travelers and luggage.

Enforcement and armed deterrence at Los Angeles International Airport is primarily the responsibility of the airport's police department, with assistance from LAPD and other agencies.

AFGE is suggesting "the development of a new class of TSA officers with law enforcement status." But Airport Police at Los Angeles are not convinced that's the best approach.

"Just doesn't make very much sense when you have trained professionals to do that job already," said Marshall McClain, President of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association.

"I'm not of the opinion that more guns mean more safety," said Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon.

Until spring, it was standard procedure for airport police to assign an officer to a fixed post at every TSA screening station. But recently arrived Chief Gannon felt that officer could be more effective deployed in the public area in front of screening.

The officers association agreed, but does believe that screening stations need to be "hardened," according to McClain.

"We want to make sure nobody thinks it's a soft target, that our officers are prepared to handle anything that comes their way," McClain said.

However, more security at the screening station itself would not necessarily have protected TSA employee Gerardo Hernandez, whom the gunman encountered first Friday morning and shot to death.

Airport officials said Hernandez was assigned not to the actual screening area, but instead to a position a level below at the foot of the escalator, where his job was to check IDs and boarding passes of travelers on their way to screening. As it turned out, the nearest airport police officers were not on either of those levels, but one more down, at ground level, Chief Gannon said.

Gannon expects review of the Friday incident will lead to changes in operations, but declined to offer specifics during a Monday afternoon briefing with Arif Alikhan, the airport's Deputy Executive Director of Law Enforcement, Homeland Security, and Fire Services.

No security changes have been made for the purpose of cost-cutting, Alikhan said repeatedly.

The suspected gunman, Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, remained hospitalized with gunshot wounds incurred during a confrontation with airport police who tracked him to the back of Terminal 3. It had been the first fatal shooting attack at LAX in 11 years, since Hesham Hedayat, an Egyptian national, opened fire at the El Al counter, killing two, before he was shot to death by an El Al security officer.

During a trip to Israel last month, Chief Gannon had attended presentations on airport security. He recalled one Powerpoint presentation's emphatic caveat: "Nothing is 100 percent."

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