LAX Shooting lessons: Airport police chief tells lawmakers it's all about speed

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It’s all about speed.

That’s what Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon told state lawmakers Friday at hearing on lessons learned from last year’s shooting at Los Angeles International Airport.

“What’s important to us? It’s really … speed,” Gannon said. “As fast as we can get to an incident — is what we have to try to do whether its on the police side or EMS side.” 

State assembly members on the select committee on local emergency preparedness held a hearing Friday on how Southern California law enforcement agencies are preparing for active shooter situations and what can be learned from the LAX shooting.

RELATED: KPCC's coverage of the shooting at LAX

A gunman opened fire last November inside Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport, killing one Transportation Security Administration officer and injuring two other TSA officers and a passenger. Authorities have charged Paul Ciancia, 23, with 11 federal counts, including murder and attempted murder.  

The man who died, Gerardo Hernandez, was the first TSA officer to die in the line of duty. The shooting has brought much scrutiny to the Los Angles Airport Police Department about its security measures and response.

An after-action report about the shooting prepared by Los Angeles World Airport executive security officials is due to the Airport Board Commission in mid-March.

Two airport police officers assigned to Terminal 3 that day were found to be on rest breaks. The airport police union has criticized the department for not having a stationary assigned officer at each TSA checkpoint.  

Gannon defended his officers and their response, saying even if there was an officer out front of the airport terminal, he may not have been equipped stop a suspect with an assault rifle.

“If you are going to take someone on with an assault weapon and it’s one-on-one, right in front of each other — you may lose more times than you’re going to win as a police officer.”  

Gannon said the first emergency call about the shooting in Terminal 3 came from a TSA checkpoint phone line routed directly to L.A. Airport police dispatch, but no information was taken because the caller ran for safety.

An Associated Press story reported the dispatcher couldn’t send police immediately to Terminal 3 because the phone system isn’t capable of tracing a call’s location.

A second call came from an airline employee who used his cell phone to dial airport police directly. Gannon said within a minute and a half of the shooting, police had a full description of what was going. The gunman was taken into custody in 4 minutes and 8 seconds, he said.

Gannon said he thought the response was very quick, but added that he understood that some people may feel that’s not quick enough. He pledged to work on finding ways to slim down response times, but added they’d be shaving seconds, not minutes.

“We’re down to that point where we’re making those kinds of adjustments,” he said. “That’s really the fine tuning that occurs that will help us save lives.” 

911 calls get routed outside the airport

State lawmakers questioned the airport police chief on why the emergency calls made that day were phoned in directly to the airport police dispatch number and not 911.

Gannon explained L.A. Airport Police doesn’t have the capabilities to receive 911 calls directly. For example, if someone called 911 on a hardline, it would be routed to the Los Angeles Police Department. If the call is made on a cell phone, the California Highway Patrol takes it.

“It been that way for a long, long time,” he said.

Gannon said there are discussions on how L.A. Airport Police can begin receiving 911 calls, but that additional equipment, staff training, and funding would be needed.

“And once you accept that responsibility as a 911 system, you have to be able to handle it,” he said.

As a stopgap measure, LAX employees and contract workers can call 7-911 on any airport hardline and be directly connected to LAXPD dispatch. But that doesn’t work for cell phones. So Gannon said they’re trying to make sure every airport employee has the LAXPD dispatch number plugged into their cell phone speed-dial option.

Gannon admitted time could have been wasted the morning of the shooting at LAX had a passenger called 911 from a cell phone that day because the call would have gone to CHP dispatch, switched to LAPD dispatch, then to LAXPD at the airport.

“It would have been a huge problem here had we had someone on a cell phone calling 911,” he said. “It would have taken a lot more time.”

Gannon said the cell phone 911 system should be evaluated for improvements not just for airport security but also for thousands Southern California residents whose primary home phone is a cell phone.

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