Three south suburban police officers are facing possible disciplinary action after they brought their department-issued firearms onboard commercial flights, allegedly without proper authorization and for travel that was not work-related, we recently learned.
The officers, who work for the Village of Riverdale, flew separately on personal trips between Chicago and Orlando and Chicago and Los Angeles over the spring and summer and somehow secured credentials to fly armed, despite not having permission from their supervisors, according to Riverdale officials and documents we obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Unlike ordinary citizens who have to check their firearms while flying, state and local police officers can carry guns in the cabin of commercial aircraft as long as they’ve been authorized to have a weapon onboard as part of their assigned duties, according to federal regulations. Officers also have to take a short training program on flying with guns.
Prior to their departure, and apparently without the knowledge of top Riverdale police brass, the cops sought assistance from a clerk in the police department’s records division to submit electronic paperwork – needed to fly armed – through the Illinois Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, a database that connects law enforcement agencies on the state and national level.
Generally, before a cop can board a plane with a gun, airport security verifies the message from the law enforcement database with the officer’s information, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency charged with securing the nation’s airports.
The Riverdale officers “were given authority as far as we’re concerned,” said TSA spokesman Mike McCarthy. “There’s no way you can show up and just walk through carrying a firearm. There has to be someone at the village who has authority to” send approval.
In Riverdale, only the chief and deputy chief have this authority, officials said.
How exactly the officers did it without them remains unclear, as none of the officers, or the clerk, returned phone calls.
But according to emails we obtained, it appears the clerk and the officers didn’t realize that procedures may have been violated until the department began investigating the issue in September.
“In no way did I know that this was authorized only by the Chief of Police or the Deputy Chief,” the clerk wrote in a message to the deputy chief. “Had I known this, I would not have performed these duties.”
One of the officers also wrote: “I was under the impression that flying armed was the norm as a certified LEO,” or law enforcement officer.
Two of the officers have been with the agency for less than a year, while the third has been there roughly five years, according to the department. The agency has 31 cops total.
Bernard Mooney, a Riverdale police officer and union steward with the Fraternal Order of Police, said the officers involved couldn’t comment because the department’s investigation is still ongoing and he didn’t know much beyond the allegation.
“I don’t know if there’s been any wrongdoing,” he said. “All that’s been said is there is an investigation looking into if there’s been any wrongdoing.”
Airport security experts said the situation identifies a procedural problem and raises questions about how the agencies involved enforce their policies.
“If it happens three times and the department didn’t authorize it three times, something is wrong,” said Steve Dedmon, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “There is something wrong on the police department’s administrative end, letting this paperwork fly out . . . and then there’s the requirement with the TSA that says the person is going to be carrying the gun in an official capacity as a law enforcement officer. Where is the official duty part? . . . Why didn’t someone [at the TSA] ask, ‘How are you acting as a law enforcement officer?’”
But overall, experts didn’t think the officers’ actions presented a major risk to the public.
“Is it a security threat? Sure, because procedures were not followed and the system didn’t work. You are not supposed to be able to carry your gun when you’re going on vacation,” said Jeff Price, a professor of aviation at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It is a gap in the system, but it really doesn’t point out a significant security risk.”
Riverdale Deputy Chief Rocky Graziano said no one is pursuing criminal charges, although it could have been an option. Instead, he said the matter will be handled administratively.
“It is what it is,” Graziano said. “It’s unacceptable, but it’s not the end of the world. There was never any danger to the public.”
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews. She can be reached at 312–821-9027 or email@example.com.