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House panel seeks ways to protect federal airport security officers and flying public

Columnist

The murder of Gerardo Hernandez remains hard to take.

He was the first — and only — U.S. transportation security officer (TSO) to be killed in the line of duty.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues 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. View Archive

The Nov. 1 shooting death at Los Angeles International Airport was “an extraordinary shock to the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) community and the public on whose behalf the agency is charged with ensuring safe and secure travel,” said a TSA report issued Wednesday. “It remains difficult to comprehend the sudden loss of a dedicated public servant who was simply doing his job.”

Members of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation will try to better comprehend what happened and what needs to be done to stop it from happening again. They will hold a field hearing at the Los Angeles airport Friday afternoon.

“The immediate actions of TSA and law enforcement to pursue the shooter undoubtedly saved lives,” said full committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), adding “it is important that we review how airport security can better coordinate and respond to an emergency.” Three others were wounded that day, including two Transportation Security officers.

TSA’s report includes recommendations designed to improve workplace safety for a workforce that has been the target of some abuse. The recommendations fall into three areas: enhanced training, communications and employee support; equipment and technology; and the use of law enforcement officers at airport checkpoints.The suspect, Paul Anthony Ciancia, carried a letter that said he made a “conscious decision to kill” TSA employees, according to the federal agency.

Now awaiting trial, Ciancia allegedly fired multiple rounds into Hernandez, who was at the base of an escalator leading to the screening area. Brutally, “the suspect began to proceed up the escalator, paused, and returned to the screening checkpoint and fired additional shots into the previously hit victim at point blank range,” according to a March 18 report submitted to the Board of Airport Commissions by Los Angeles World Airports.

TSA’s recommendations are outlined in “Enhancing TSA Officer Safety and Security at Airports: Agency Actions and Path Forward.” They include mandatory active-shooter training for employees; routine testing of alarms that “alert authorities of the presence of an imminent threat of bodily harm;” and standards for increased police or security guard presence at checkpoints and ticket counters during peak times.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the committee, said the report is “a good first step toward making the traveling public and the Transportation Security Officers more safe and secure.” But he noted “lingering concerns about the ability of TSA personnel to communicate with first responders during emergencies.”

The report reflects a notable effort to get the thoughts of all agency employees. Their views were sought through more than 100 town hall meetings and an online tool called the Idea Factory. TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said “many of these ideas were endorsed and incorporated into our action plan.”

But the report also is honest about the employee ideas the agency rejected.

Perhaps the most controversial one is a proposal that calls for creating an armed law enforcement unit within TSA.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the officers, is a strong advocate of an armed unit. He is scheduled to testify at the Los Angeles session along with Pistole and Los Angeles World Airports officials.

Cox plans to tell the hearing that TSOs have been verbally and physically assaulted on duty and have been the target of hatred and vilification directed to them “in the most horrific terms.”

“[U]narmed, unprotected and exposed, TSA officers at the Terminal 3 checkpoint were easy targets for a man with an irrational hatred of TSA and specifically TSA officers,” Cox said in testimony submitted in advance of the hearing.

“In light of this terrible tragedy, AFGE strongly believes the best response to enhance security for Agency employees and the traveling public is to create an armed Transportation Security Law Enforcement Officer position assigned to protect TSOs and passengers at airport checkpoints and other key locations.”

Cox also advocates raised, protective podiums with bulletproof glass at airport checkpoints where the armed officers would be stationed. This would serve as a deterrent, he said, and allow them to better “detect a problem before it escalates into an attack.”

But TSA said no to the idea of armed TSOs. And the plan doesn’t seem to have much congressional support.

“The Administrator does not believe that adding more guns to the checkpoint by arming TSOs is the solution and that it raises jurisdictional and cost issues,” said the TSA report.

The report concludes with a sobering tone:

“The agency’s actions are aimed at seeking to prevent, to the greatest extent possible, a recurrence of this tragedy, while recognizing that the next attack may take a different form.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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