Airport police take proactive stance with customer service
By Jordanna Smida, Associate editor
DETROIT, MI — As Wayne County's Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) grows, servicing more than 34 million passengers a year, its airport police force has adjusted its policing philosophy to include diversity training and interpersonal communication programs to increase customer service.
Under FAR Part 107, DTW is required to have police enforcement. The airport police force provides 24-hour law enforcement service for the airport.
The force used to a member of the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, but in April 1993 it branched off into its own force. According to Thomas Schmidtke, chief of police, DTW airport police, since the airport and airlines fund the department's services, they wanted to keep the resources on the airport. "So, it was really a necessity that we separate so we can take the resources and focus strictly on providing law enforcement services at the airport," he states.
Among the responsibilities of the airport police force it patrols airport perimeters, oversees checkpoints, and manages traffic flow. However, as DTW grows, the force has found that communication and customer service are playing a greater role in policing.
Increasing Customer service
Since its last infrastructure change in 1971, the airport has grown dramatically, Schmidtke says. At that time it was handling 6.5 to 7 million passengers a year. In 1999 that figure has grown to nearly 34 million passengers a year. "It forced us to look at how we police, how we move traffic, and how we shift from more of a traffic enforcement to a traffic management philosophy," Schmidtke explains.
As a result, the airport became very proactive in customer service, providing the officers with programs in cultural diversity and verbal communication. Schmidtke says, "It became a necessity because of the number of passengers that travel through this airport with vehicles."
As passenger numbers rose and airport traffic increased, the force began to look at how it traditionally policed, specifically as it was writing nearly 20,000 tickets a year. Schmidtke explains, "To issue a ticket and tow a vehicle was really counter-productive when you're trying to work within an airport that is antiquated. The time it would take me to write a ticket and tow a vehicle, I'm not in the street moving traffic."
As a result, the force initiated a program with what Schmidtke calls a 10/20 rule aimed at changing officers' time rule. This meant that an officer had to allow 10 minutes before ticketing a vehicle and 20 minutes before it was towed.
The force is supported through revenues from passenger facility charges and other airport revenue streams. The revenues for any tickets issued at the airport go to the 34th districts court, Schmidtke says. "If I take away the incentive to write tickets, it gets them thinking in the right frame of mind," he says.
The force also worked with the airport to reconfigure the North lower area of the ground transportation area to open the roadway for travelers to load and unload. According to Schmidtke, this six-month project reduced citizen complaints by 90 percent. He says, "Complaints dropped simply because we were making them do something they didn't want to do. When you put so many people in a small space, there's going to be friction... When we moved the commercial traffic it relieved curb space.
"We worked hard at training for interpersonal skills and looked at cultural diversity because you're dealing with people from all different ethnicities and you may say something to offend someone and never realize it. Those things coupled with the reconfiguration had the biggest impact on the service delivered by law enforcement."
The DTW airport police force draws its staff from the Sheriff's Depart-ment through a collective bargaining agreement, Schmidtke says. A percentage of the force's staff are deputized U.S. Marshals in order to eliminate gray areas that may arise when a crime is committed in the air, Schmidtke says. "As long as some of your command staff are deputized as U.S. Marshals then all the officers are working in conjunction with you and now assume your jurisdiction."
For the first five weeks, new officers on the force participate in a field training program to familiarize them with the regulations of the airport. "We want them to learn about these regulations and about the requirements of traveling in and about an airport and to learn about the federal laws," Schmidtke states.
Training occurs throughout the year two days a week at DTW for the force and includes updates for first aid and specialty training. "Dollar for dollar, we probably train more than any law enforcement agency in the state of Michigan," Schmidtke says.
The force also has a K-9 unit, made up of eight dogs, which it receives from the Air Force's training program through a contract with the FAA. Annually, the dogs are required to go through K-9 evaluations by the Air Force, which requires active dogs to have a 90 percent proficiency, Schmidtke states.
Through grant programming, DTW also has a Mobile Field Force, designed to train surrounding communities in areas such as emergency response drivers training and precision/pursuit driving. "What we really try to do is share our resources because in one major incident we'd be such a major draw on their resources, we try to pay back to the communities that surround the airport," he says.
Teaming with the Community
One of the most important relationships DTW maintains is with its surrounding communities. There are times where the airport and its surrounding communities rely on each other for assistance, and as a result the DTW airport police force is a member of several mutual aid groups.
DTW is one of 19 Category X airports in the United States, which requires the airport to supply certain levels of services, Schmidtke says. Some of those requirements include having an explosive ordinance force, K-9 sniffing bomb teams, and a special response unit or SWAT team, he explains.
Schmidtke says that in recognizing the noise and congestion of the airport can impose on surrounding communities, the force tries to ease those factors by offering support through equipment and services such as explosive ordinance disposal staff and dogs when needed. "We realize that sometimes airports can be bad neighbors. Where we can, we try to help the communities that surround the area because the equipment in those areas is very expensive... There's a big cost expenditure to those communities and what we do is we share our resources," he states.
This mutual aid relationship has also allowed the airport to utilize resources when in need. A good example, Schmidtke says, was in 1987 when the Northwest Airlines 255 disaster, which resulted in 157 fatalities, occurred at DTW. He says, "We had a large section just northeast of the airport that was a crash scene we had to manage 24-7, which lasted a week and we still had to run an airport. We relied heavily on mutual aid from the surrounding communities. There comes a time where you have to reciprocate. If there was a major incident in another local community, we'd send out a portion of our people."