LAX Shift May Cause Cops chaos

A California Assembly bill that would transfer power from specially trained LAPD units to LAX police would create confusion and uncertainty over who would be in control during a major terrorist strike at the airport, LAPD officials said.

In a move some say would jeopardize public safety to settle a political turf battle, Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Glendale, has penned a bill that would give police at Los Angeles International Airport new responsibilities over specialized functions ranging from explosives handling to traffic tickets -- duties now mostly handled by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Los Angeles police say the bill would essentially give two agencies primary jurisdiction over the airport, creating a conflict over lines of responsibility.

"It puts them on equal footing with LAPD and gives them primary jurisdiction at the airport," said LAPD Assistant Chief Sharon Papa. "You cannot have two agencies with primary jurisdiction policing the same entity. It causes confusion."

LAPD brass and its union say they are the best trained to handle specialized situations and they should retain primary authority over all property and facilities within city limits.

Airport police argue that the change is necessary because they have added concerns about security and terrorism.

"All it will do is allow the (airport) police officers to do their job post-9-11 -- a job that's very different in terms of responsibilities," said Fred Lowe, business manager for the union representing airport police, Laborers International Union of North America, Local 777.

Current law restricts airport police from handling explosives to train dogs in bomb detection; accessing law enforcement databases to conduct background checks on airport personnel; seizing firearms and other weapons from a disturbance at the airport; issuing traffic citations and removing vehicles from the roadway.

But officials from the LAPD and its union say they have been in discussions with the airport and its police union to reach an internal agreement to more clearly define the responsibilities of each department -- and say the issue should be resolved at the local level, not through Sacramento.

Bob Baker, president of the LAPD union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, called the bill an "end-run" by the state Legislature around what should be a local issue.

The airport police union requested Frommer author the legislation after feeling the local discussions were not proceeding to their satisfaction. Frommer could not be reached for comment.

LAPD's Papa said the department has primary jurisdiction over the airport, as it has over all territory within the city, with airport police having concurrent jurisdiction.

The LAPD needs to retain primary responsibility for major incidents such as homicides and terrorist attacks, she said.

The city Board of Airport Commissioners supports the change. Board officials noted that police at airports and ports throughout the state have the additional powers, and Los Angeles is the only major city whose airport police do not.

Jack Driscoll, a former Los Angeles World Airports executive director who is now a consultant to LAX police, noted that last year voters rejected a measure to merge the two departments, thereby supporting the concept of a strong, independent airport force.

He also said the City Charter gives airport police primary jurisdiction, not the LAPD.

"Why is the union and management of LAPD not supporting this? It gives our police officers additional authority and they can put more of their people on the street," Driscoll said.

The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training released a feasibility study of the proposal last year that recommended the change.

LAX police have 793 personnel, including 332 sworn officers, according to the study.

The airport contracts with the LAPD to provide an additional 35 to 40 full-time officers to help with patrol. The LAPD also provides officers to help with traffic control during federal terrorism alerts and for special security, bomb detection and crime task forces.

Airport police also patrol an area near LAX, where some residents live on land purchased by the airport as part of a noise-reduction settlement.

LAWA police handled nearly 57,000 calls for service in 2003, according to the POST study.

The majority of crimes handled by airport police were robbery and burglary, followed by drug and weapons violations.

The City Council has not taken a formal position on the bill. Councilman Jack Weiss, chairman of the public safety committee, opposes the bill.

The issue, he said, should be resolved at the city level.

"At the end of the day, there are certain decisions that ought to be made in Sacramento and there are decisions that ought to be made in (Police Chief William Bratton's) office," Weiss said.

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