by Mallory Black
As autopsy results of a fallen TSA officer killed earlier this month were released Friday, union officials are outlining increased security measures for both the public and Congress to consider.
While a final report of the Nov. 1 shootings of TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez and two other officers who were wounded has yet to be released, the American Federation of Government Employees has developed proposals for increased security measures for transportation security employees, which were released in a Nov. 14 statement.
One proposal suggests creating a separate unit of armed, law enforcement-trained TSA officers at security checkpoints.
“People don’t realize our TSA officers aren’t law enforcement officers,” said AFGE general counsel David Borer. “They don’t have that authority under the law; they don’t have arrest power; they don’t have the ability to detain people.”
The proposed special unit of Transportation Security Administration officers would be required to undergo law enforcement training as well as obtain proper weapons certifications. Though a call to arm all 45,000 TSA officers was never proposed, Borer said, officers wouldn’t replace existing airport authorities either.
“At O’Hare you’ll see Chicago Police Department officers in the terminal, but some airports have officers and some do not. This new unit would have to coordinate with whatever those existing programs are,” Borer said. “And we’re not proposing every officer should be armed, rather that every checkpoint should have an armed officer. Someone who is specifically there to protect those who work at the checkpoint or passengers who come through.”
Borer added that due to increasing harassment of TSA officers, employee safety at checkpoints has become a major concern.
“The event at LAX was the first time we’ve had an officer killed, but our officers are attacked both verbally and physically far too often.” Borer said. “We have officers punched, knocked out, kicked and tackled and spat upon on a fairly routine basis.”
AFGE’s second proposal involves implementing a raised platform or podium that would provide TSA employees better visibility around the checkpoint. Passengers would be able to better identify officers as well.
“A raised platform would go hand-in-hand with putting armed officers at those locations,” Borer said. “It’s a deterrent, but the platform can also be reinforced in a way that gives them a certain amount of protection if an event were to start and they needed a location from which to return fire, for example.”
The third proposal deals with airport exit lanes, and the restoration of TSA officers to these lanes with the addition of an armed officer. For budgetary reasons, the Transportation Security Administration began phasing out staffing at exit lanes in April, instead turning over jurisdiction to local airport authorities.
But Borer said this move was a mistake.
”Until we secure those exit lanes, that’s always going to be a point of vulnerability,” Borer said. “We need someone to stop any shooters, like the shooter in LA who allegedly killed Officer Hernandez and afterwards proceeded through the exit lane unimpeded down Terminal 3, where he shot three more people.”
Since it’s not considered part of the screening process, the TSA does not provide exit lane security at more than two-thirds of federalized airports, according to Ann Davis, regional TSA public affairs manager.
“To most efficiently use TSA’s limited resources and to focus on the priority of screening passengers and baggage, the TSA has proposed transferring exit lane access control responsibility to local airport authorities, reducing the agency’s budget request by $88.1 million for fiscal year 2014,” Davis wrote in an email.
Making the responsibility standard across all airport exit lanes, ensuring consistency with airport perimeter access controls and maintaining TSA’s compliance through its regulatory inspection program were additional reasons to eliminate TSA exit lane staffing, according to Davis.
AFGE’s last proposal entails the Behavior Detection Officer program, which was subject to a Nov. 14 House Subcommittee on Transportation Security meeting.
Behavior detection officers are trained to detect unusual or suspicious behaviors through the SPOT program – screening of passengers by observation techniques – and investigate situations in which someone poses a threat.
But a study released this month by the Government Accountability Office, “Aviation Security: TSA Should Limit Future Funding for Behavior Detection Activities,” indicated the program lacked scientific evidence of its effectiveness. The study recommends the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the TSA Administrator to limit future funding for the BDO program until it can demonstrate the program’s effectiveness in identifying passengers who pose an aviation security risk.
According to the study, the BDO program has spent $900 million since it was implemented in 2007.
The TSA isn’t cutting BDO programs at O’Hare and Midway airports, and there are no plans to eliminate the program at these airports at this time, according to Davis.
Though Borer thinks if enough behavior detection officers been present the day of the shooting, maybe the disaster could have been avoided. And contrary to the study’s recommendations, what AFGE proposes is an expansion of the Behavior Detection Officer program.
But it’s difficult to put a ballpark figure on how much it would cost to expand the BDO program, and implement each of AFGE’s three other proposals.
“Obviously there is not an unlimited amount of funds,” Borer said, “but if the government’s going to put officers in harm’s way, they need to give them enough backup to protect themselves.”