Law enforcement at U.S. airports is inadequate to protect against the types of attacks that killed scores in Brussels and Istanbul in recent months, according to a former Transportation Security Administration official and the union representing airport screeners.
Unlike many other countries with national police forces patrolling airports, the responsibility in the U.S. falls largely on a patchwork of state and local law enforcement agencies.
“It’s a vulnerability,” John Halinski, a former deputy administrator at the TSA who is now a security consultant, said. “Airport police are really kind of overwhelmed. They just don’t have the budgets, they don’t have the manpower.”
The agencies are understaffed and underfunded, particularly at smaller airports, Halinski said. The police response to a 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport that left a TSA screener dead -- which was hampered by poor communication and delays -- illustrates some of the issues, he said.
Bombings by three terrorists suspected of being aligned with Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, killed more than 40 people Tuesday at Istanbul’s main international airport. Similar to an attack in Brussels in March, the terrorists in Istanbul struck relatively soft targets at the airport where people gather before being subjected to thorough security searches to board flights.
“The recent attacks in Istanbul and Brussels have fully alerted the entire world to a different type of terrorist attack,” said Charity Wilson, a legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees that has called for arming TSA more agents. “That is attacking an open area at the airport that is usually close to or between checkpoints.”
Two of the three bombs in Istanbul were detonated in an arrivals area that was outside the secure terminals where everyone must be screened, according to Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag. At least one attacker opened fire with a Kalashnikov automatic assault rifle in that area, Bozdag said. A third person exploded a suicide vest bomb in a parking area, he said.
For more on how attacks on unsecured areas of airports worry security experts, click here.
In the March 22 Brussels attack, bombs were detonated in a check-in area prior to security screening, killing 11.
While it may be impossible for airport police forces to prevent most such attacks, swift-acting authorities may reduce casualties and a more visible law enforcement presence can serve as a deterrent, according to Halinski.
On Nov. 1, 2013, a man whom authorities charged was bent on attacking TSA officers opened fire at a screening area at Los Angeles International Airport. Screener Gerardo Hernandez was killed, and two more TSA employees and a passenger were wounded before the shooter could be subdued.
The Los Angeles Airport Police force response was hampered by confusion, poor communication and alarms that didn’t function well, according to a report by the Los Angeles World Airports, which operates airports in southern California.
“We’re lucky this shooting didn’t take more lives. We’re lucky that that day the casualty list was not higher," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said when the report was released. “This incident exposed to me shortcomings in the airport’s emergency communications infrastructure."
The AFGE union, which represents about 43,000 TSA workers, raised additional concerns about the response.
Medical assistance to Hernandez was delayed and two officers from the airport police force assigned to the checkpoint weren’t there when the shooting started, J. David Cox Sr., national president of AFGE said two years ago when the airport’s report was released.
“Current airport law enforcement operations have gaps and inconsistencies that leave TSOs and passengers vulnerable,” Cox said in a press release at the time, referring to screeners as transportation security officers. “Many airports have no armed law enforcement officers stationed at or in the airport."
The AFGE has called for the creation of a class of TSA officers who are armed and would guard airport screening checkpoints, Wilson, the union legislative representative, said in an interview. Currently, TSA screeners aren’t armed. Only TSA Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams, which patrol airports and other transportation facilities, carry weapons.
The union’s proposal to create at least a small, new armed class of TSA officer should be revisited as a result of the latest bombings, she said.
While U.S. airport police may not be as visible as the military-like presence in Europe and other areas of the world, they do a good job of providing layered security, Kevin Murphy, operations officer of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network nonprofit group, said in an interview.
“In general, I think in the United States airports, the police is adequate for the response,” said Murphy, the former chief of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Both Wilson and Halinski said they weren’t criticizing airport police forces, which they said do a good job with the resources they’ve been given.
With the increase in terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S., Congress needs to review the standards and requirements for airport police forces, Halinski said. He called a future attack on a U.S. airport “highly probable.”
CIA Director John Brennan in remarks to reporters Wednesday said the U.S. remains a priority target for terror groups. “It would be surprising to me that ISIL is not trying to hit us both in the region as well as in our homeland,” Brennan said.
Since the Los Angeles shooting, the TSA mandated active shooter training for its employees, added more alarms at screening areas and brought in more armed VIPR teams to airports, according to a 2014 release.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees TSA and other related agencies, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that security was boosted following the Brussels attacks in March. People traveling over the July 4 weekend should also expect to see a greater law enforcement presence, Johnson said.
According to Halinski, more needs to be done.
“A lot of this boils down to money and who is going to pay,” he said. “At the end of the day, quite frankly, everybody is going to have to pay something if we’re going go be more effective in this area.”
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