Congressional committee debates whether airports checkpoints need armed officers

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A Congressional committee Friday weighed the question of whether armed police officers should be stationed at all airport checkpoints - a question raised by last fall’s fatal shooting at Los Angeles International Airport.  

“There was not a decision made today of how armed law enforcement officers ought to be deployed at checkpoints,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, chair of the subcommittee on Transportation Security.  “We haven’t answered that question.”

Hudson held a hearing at LAX Friday on lessoned learned from the Nov. 1 shooting last year that killed a TSA officer and wounded three other people.

“But there are questions: Do we have a stationary position for a law enforcement officer at every checkpoint? Is that position in front of the security or behind the security screening…” Hudson said.

Hudson said he wants a follow up hearing in Washington D.C. to further discuss the breakdowns in communication among emergency responders and airport perimeter security during and after the shooting.

The widow of fallen TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez attended the congressional hearing, sitting in the front row. She greeted TSA officers with hugs and handshakes. She did not make any statements during the hearing or to the media. 

Congressional members noted during the hearing that it took responding police agencies, EMS and fire departments 45 minutes to join together in a “unified command.”

“What is perhaps most concerning about the problems identified after the incident is, had the gunman been shooting randomly -- rather than targeting TSA -- we would have seen much greater loss of life,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security committee.

McCaul (R- Texas) said that having a police officer beyond the screening checkpoints is helpful but the real vulnerability is before passengers get to screening-checkpoints and the exits of terminals.

“You want to push that threat out before it gets in,” he said.

L.A. Airport police chief Patrick Gannon said the greatest threat for LAX starts at Century Boulevard at the entrance to the airport up to the screening checkpoint.

McCaul said U.S. lawmakers have been talking to TSA administration about reimbursement funding for local airport police departments for adding extra officers to secure the airport.

The president of the AFGE union that represents TSA workers made another call during the hearing to create a new law enforcement unit within the TSA authorized to carry guns and stationed at checkpoints.

“As we have heard since November 1 current airport law enforcement operations have gaps and inconsistencies that leave TSOs and passengers vulnerable,” said J.David Cox, president of the AFGE.

Cox said TSOs need to have better training on what to do during an active shooter situation and be given the permission to have personal cell phones with them during their shift in case they need to call for help.

In a report on the shooting this week, TSA called for more law enforcement presence in LAX’s high-traffic areas, such as security checkpoints and ticket counters.

During Friday’s hearing, Rep. Maxine Waters recommended that police officers be stationed within 300 feet of TSA passenger screening checkpoints. She said she was pleased with TSA’s recommendations to have police at high-traffic areas such as checkpoints and ticket counters during peak travel times.  

“I know that there are differences of opinion about this,” Waters said. “What I do not wish to do is simply have the issue put to rest at this time because I am concerned that there may be a better a mouse trap -- I’m not sure.”

This story has been updated.

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