The Federal Diary
The Federal Diary
Joe Davidson

How should airport security officers be protected while they protect us?

Al Seib/AP - A Transportation Security Administration officer stands in front of a portrait of slain TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez during his public memorial at the Los Angeles Sports Arena Tuesday.

Transportation security officers are not among the rich and powerful.

They’ve been the butt of comedians’ jokes and politicians’ jabs, and they don’t get paid much.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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So it was heartening to see the brass turn out to honor one of the little guys who make the system work. The praise was posthumous.

Gerardo Hernandez was at his Transportation Security Administration (TSA) post in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Nov. 1 when he was slain by a gunman who apparently hated transportation security officers (TSOs). Paul A. Ciancia has been charged in the killing.

On Tuesday, Hernandez was honored at a memorial service with bagpipes and a TSA choir in Los Angeles. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called Hernandez “a passionate public servant who stood on the front lines of our struggle to prevent terrorism.”

Holder’s attendance at the service, which was broadcast online by local television stations, was notable because TSOs are not Justice Department employees. It demonstrates how seriously the Obama administration takes the first TSA death in the line of duty.

The TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Its acting secretary, Rand Beers, dropped to one knee as he presented the officer’s widow with a folded American flag.

“Every single day, Officer Hernandez took pride in the role he played to keep the American people safe,” Holder said. “Over the years, the contributions that he and others have made — and the tireless work of TSA employees across the country — have too often been unappreciated, overlooked or even discounted. Yet the importance of their efforts — in preventing acts of terror and deterring those who would threaten our nation — is difficult to overstate.”

Holder and other speakers also praised the TSA employees who were shot during the rampage. TSA Administrator John Pistole said that Tony Grigsby, a master behavior detection officer, and James Speer, a master security training instructor, continued helping others even after being wounded.

“I want to take this moment to say ‘Thank you’ to our transportation security officers,” Holder said. “And to promise all of you that my colleagues and I will stand with this community not only in paying tribute to one of the best among us, but working to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.”

But what can be done — what should be done to prevent this from happening again?

The American Federation of Government Employees, the labor organization that represents TSOs, has a plan that would change TSA’s character and could fundamentally affect its mission.

Under the first of three union suggestions, the government would create a group of TSA employees who would be armed law enforcement officers. Airports now have local police officers on duty at airports, but AFGE said that system lacks consistency in staffing requirements. There should be “standardization throughout the country,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr.

Currently, TSOs are tasked with fighting terrorism by looking for explosives and other items among airline travelers and their baggage. The officers are not armed, and responding to general criminal activity at airports is not their responsibility. But that could change, at least to a degree, if some of them are law enforcement officers.

These new federal cops would be assigned to checkpoints. Now, local police officers at some airports are allowed to roam. There’s some value in that, so why not just add more local cops with some assigned to checkpoints and others free to move about the airport?

Cox and David Borer, AFGE’s general counsel, are not critical of local law enforcement, but the union says this should be a federalized function, carried out by government employees.

“We think there needs to be a consistent approach,” Borer said.

He noted, according to media reports, that the LAX gunman shot Hernandez, rode up an escalator, then returned and shot Hernandez again after realizing that the officer was not dead.

If armed officers had been posted with Hernandez, the shooter “could not come back the second time,” Borer said.

AFGE also wants security officers to have reinforced, raised platforms that would allow a better view of security lines and provide protection from crazed gunmen. The union also would like to see more behavioral detection officers, who can scan airport crowds in an attempt to spot those who appear suspicious.

“SPOT” is actually a term of art. It stands for “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques.” Using SPOT, TSA behavior detection officers (BDOs) attempt to pick out passengers for additional screening. AFGE wants an increase in BDOs, but a friendly congressman does not agree.

Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he has not seen “any real science associated” with SPOT and questioned the effectiveness of BDOs. Those issues will be discussed at a hearing Thursday.

He favors arming some TSOs as “an additional layer of protection for the traveling public,” but he knows that getting Congress to approve the additional resources would be difficult.

Beers said that Hernandez was “exactly the kind of officer you would want on the front lines.”

But how do we protect them as they protect us?

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

 
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