WASHINGTON (CNN) — Some Transportation Security Administration airport screeners should be given firearms and arrest powers to protect the larger workforce from shootings like last week’s tragedy in Los Angeles, the head of the screeners union said Monday.
J. David Cox Sr. proposed creating a “new class of TSA officers” that would have law enforcement status.
Those officers — and not airport police — should be entrusted to protect checkpoints, Cox said.
“We want to make sure we are doing everything possible to secure screening areas,” said Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the nation’s 45,000 transportation security officers.
Friday’s shooting has reignited the debates over the proper role of airport screeners and how best to protect the workforce charged with protecting the American public. Ideas run the gamut, from giving screeners guns to taking away their police-like badges.
Critics say the Transportation Security Administration erred in 2005, when in an effort to professionalize the workforce and boost morale, it reclassified screeners as “officers.” The title wrongly implies that screeners carry guns and have arrest powers, critics say, and gives the public a skewed view of their jobs.
In 2007, the agency issued screeners uniforms with blue shirts, and the next 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.
“Despite their title and appearance TSA transportation security officers are not in fact federal officers,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, said Monday. Arming the officers “would only make matters worse,” said Blackburn, who has sponsored legislation to prevent the workers from wearing metal badges and using the title “officer.”
In his two public appearances since the shooting, TSA Administrator John Pistole, a career FBI agent before moving to the TSA in 2010, has sidestepped questions about whether the officers 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.”
Both Pistole and Ridge spoke before Cox proposed creating a new tier of TSA offices.
Providing guns to all 45,000-plus officers would be a weighty challenge. Currently, the federal air marshals are the only TSA officers who carry weapons, and most were drawn from the ranks of law enforcement or the military.
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.
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.
Although congress could decide to give TSA officers guns or remove their badges, there is a range of other options.
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 on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley.
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.