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Airport police are often "the forgotten" arm of law enforcement

By Rich Roberts
International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO

Within a brief 90-minute period on September 11, 2001, fewer than 200 police officers had to mobilize and secure two of the highest profile airports in the nation, if not the world. They were successful. The following weeks and months saw them on high alert, working extremely long hours, suffering from fatigue, and disrupting their lives and the lives of their families.

During that time, the FBI mobilized approximately 100 field agents to Dulles International to follow leads related to American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. Unfamiliar with the airport and its procedures, agents depended on Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) police investigators to lead them through the process.

With the establishment of FBI command posts at both Reagan National and Dulles International, MWAA investigators worked side by side with Bureau agents in exercising command and control of the investigation and following up leads and situations in the aftermath of the attacks, evacuations, and subsequent closing of both airports.

All of this occurred at the two airports that loom larger in the consciousness of those who would do us harm out of the more than five thousand public airports. MWAA police are one of a very few police departments in the country responsible for the protection of two airports with the highest probability of being attacked. Reagan National, within view of the White House and Capitol, sees many high ranking federal officials using it frequently. The more distant Dulles, hosts high profile foreign dignitaries and is directly in line with approaches to the nation's Capitol.

How has the commitment, courage, and sacrifice of the airport police been rewarded? The answer is echoed in a country and western song by Daryll Worley. After 9-11, he posed the question, "Have You Forgotten?" The sad answer is that from the very beginning, these officers were and still are forgotten. An even greater tragedy lies in the prospect that, like them, police officers protecting our entire public transportation infrastructure, airports, railways, and transit systems are being forgotten as well. But the MWAA police remember.

Not long after their heroic efforts and when it came time for personnel evaluations, police commanders recommended raises for numerous officers based on their meritorious service. What the officers remember most is that word came down from the top that no one would receive a top rating of "far exceeds" on their evaluations. The officers read this as a clear message that all they had done was insignificant in the eyes of the authorities who had final say. They were no longer just the forgotten, they were the ignored.

While untold amounts of money are being spent on infrastructure, federal personnel, and high-tech security measures, these men and women are the front line when an incident occurs. They are the ones with the greatest responsibility and the ones given the most limited resources. They are the first on the scene. They are the first on the list of the forgotten.

Several years ago, MWAA, the ruling body for the two airports, had imposed a pay system tying an officer's performance to pay raises. In the aftermath of 9-11, police commanders at MWAA recognized the service of many of those rank and file officers who had served so well and recommended them for well earned increases in pay. The authorities who run MWAA superceded those recommendations on the grounds that the officers were simply doing their expected duty and no merit pay was warranted. In a short sighted move to save a few dollars, the Authority's civilian decision-makers, controlling an agency that contributes $6.5 billion in revenue to the area economy, sent a clear message to their police officers: "You've done nothing out of the ordinary, there is nothing special about your performance."

Insulted and discouraged, the officers continue to do their sworn duty with limited equipment, training, or support from high-ranking decision-makers while the federal government pours billions of dollars into other aspects of transportation security both here and abroad. MWAA officials insist that they are, in essence, a public entity and even use "local government" license plates on MWAA vehicles. Yet when the department seeks federal assistance, they are treated as a private entity and are told they don't qualify. MWAA authorities appear unable, or reluctant to resolve this duality and seek funding assistance for their own police department.

The Transportation Security Administration, which has been absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security, moved as swiftly as could be expected of a federal agency to federalize security screeners at the nation's airports. While the image of increased security may have improved, they have forgotten some critical factors. TSA screeners are not sworn police officers. They do not have powers of arrest. They are not authorized to use force. If a violent act is anticipated, or actually occurs, they are powerless to act swiftly and decisively. They have to call a police officer. But how quickly can the officer or officers respond?

Thirty million strangers pass through those two airports each year. A civilian workforce of close to 30,000 people populates the facility, not counting delivery and other service workers going in and out. There are fewer than 200 police officers (with only a third likely to be immediately available at any time) covering approximately 12,000 acres divided by a gap of 35 miles. And yet, the forgotten still respond.

Forgotten is the fact that airport police are a full service, bona fide police department with the same responsibilities as any municipal department and with the added burden imposed by the nature of airports. They patrol airport perimeters on every shift looking for and reporting weak points or attempts to penetrate airport grounds. They have detectives who respond to situations that private security personnel in the air cargo areas can't handle. They have a Criminal Investigation Section, a SWAT team, an award winning K-9 Unit, a Special Operations Unit, Motorcycle Unit, and officers assigned to various joint task forces with U.S. Customs, DEA, and the joint Terrorism Task Force.

Duties include patrolling an extensive system of roads both within and connecting the two airports that carry an estimated 50,000 vehicles daily, including speeders, drunks, narcotics abusers, and myriad other miscreants. In short, whatever unit they are in, whatever their assignment, they are cops in the proudest sense of the word.

When suspicious activities or other incidents occur on inbound flights the aircraft will be diverted to an isolated area under MWAA police control. On all occasions MWAA police are the first on the scene. One example is a situation where two patrol officers and their sergeant responded to a diverted aircraft. They were able to make contact with the aircrew and determine that the situation was not serious or life threatening to anyone on board. The crew and passengers were removed from the aircraft and the airport police questioned the crew and passengers as they deplaned.

Had the situation been more serious, they would have called in their SWAT team, which sources say has received very limited training since 9-11. However, with some new hires officers hope the SWAT operations may be expanded.

All officers coming out of the training academy are fully certified and have the same training as officers from surrounding jurisdictions. In a recent graduating class at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy, the top three academic positions were held by MWAA officers.

In order to appear competitive with surrounding jurisdictions, in 2002 MWAA increased the starting pay of new officers to $37,428 which is 4 percent lower than the average of 18 nearby police agencies. Their problem becomes more apparent when an officer gains rank and seniority. A patrol level officer who reaches the maximum salary drops to a figure 15 percent lower than the average for surrounding jurisdictions and a corporal with top seniority will be paid 20 percent less than the area average. Similar disparities exist all the way up through the ranks including the chief whose salary is 12 percent below his colleagues in other agencies.

The disparity of pay breeds an atmosphere of frustration and creates an incentive to transfer to other neighboring departments as soon as an opportunity arises. The result is a police department that serves as a training ground for neighboring communities and is dominated by less experienced officers.

While salaries are an issue for the officers, benefits that are crucial to their welfare and especially that of their families are more critical and yet extremely limited. Officers have no medical retirement program. Typically, a police department should be expected to take care of officers permanently injured in the line of duty. MWAA does not provide such protection for their officers.

Just as typically, because a police department, by the very nature of the job, places its officers in harms way, they should equally be expected to provide significant financial support for officers who are injured in the line of duty and require time off the job in order to recover from their injuries.

MWAA authorities apparently ignore the fact that unlike any other profession, police officers face far more risk. In addition to injuries from attacks by violent persons, vehicle accidents as the result of rapid response to calls for service, and similar traditional exposure to danger, officers are at much greater risk than the general public to blood borne or even air borne pathogens. Hepatitis B and HIV exposure caused by inevitable physical contact with aggressive people is a constant worry. The SARS outbreak in 2003 placed officers at additional risk. Yet MWAA provides no more than the absolute minimum compensation required by federal law for on duty injuries.

With all these frustrations, with all the dangers and discouraging treatment, these officers still respond, still do their sworn duty. This burden weighs heavily on these officers in a department that is understaffed and under-funded while federal and state authorities boast about the massive amounts of aid they are giving to other programs. Despite all of this, airport police officers answered more than 60,000 calls for service in 2002 and that rate has increased substantially over the years.

National, state, and local leaders have all leaped on the bandwagon of national security. They seem to have forgotten more than just these officers. They have forgotten that more conventional criminal activity is still very much with us. Police departments throughout the country are being forced to do more with less. The relief promised by public officials does not appear to have reached the streets where the thin blue line grows thinner and yet still responds to the challenge.

For all the lack of resources, the lack of support, the years and cumulative "road dirt" have not dulled the reality to the men and women of the MWAA police. They remember well when the call first came out. They remember well when the Pentagon billowed smoke into the sky. They remember with justifiable pride how they cleared and secured two major airports in record time. They remember, and they fear they may be the only ones.

Rich Roberts is the director of Special Operations/PIO for IUPA. The above article was first published in 2003 in a national law enforcement publication