The long-simmering City Council debate over whether to arm aviation security officers can be resolved by making them part of the Chicago Police Department, a chief proponent said Wednesday.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ordinance authorizing aviation security officer to carry weapons is languishing in a committee, embraced the idea tossed out by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) during a recent closed-door meeting with Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans.
“Incorporation of aviation security officers into the Chicago Police Department at a lesser level than that of a police officer. By doing that, they would be recognized by the Chicago Police Department and armed without any additional training. That’s an excellent approach,” Taliaferro, a former Chicago Police officer, said Wednesday.
“It’s very similar to what’s been done with the Illinois Secretary of State police. They all carry the Illinois State Police patch. They’re police officers and armed, but they’ve been assimilated into the Illinois State Police without the same degree of being an Illinois state trooper.”
Burke could not be reached for comment. Nor could Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Evans said the question of whether aviation security officers should be armed involves a “very complex set of issues” that requires “careful analysis” and cannot be resolved quickly.
“When we talk about securing the airport and risk and all of the issues we face, this is a very tiny piece of what we do,” Evans said.
Although aldermen feel a sense of urgency to resolve the controversy, Evans is in no hurry.
“There’s no urgent issue. We’re fine. CPD has shown time and time again that they’re in place. They resolve issues quickly. . . . We’re very confident in the system we have in place today. It’s not a house-on-fire issue by any means,” she said.
According to Taliaferro, the commissioner started the closed-door meeting with key aldermen “somewhat defiant” and left “willing to explore” Burke’s idea.
Taliaferro said he and Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd) are determined to resolve the issue before the summer travel crunch.
They were both incensed by the email directive issued to aviation security officers after a shooter killed five people in the baggage claim area at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
The unarmed officers were told they would not be dispatched to disturbances in unsecured areas of O’Hare and Midway, including check-in and baggage claim. But they would continue to handle disturbances in secure areas beyond the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint.
“Before Fort Lauderdale, no one ever thought that you could legally check a gun into your luggage and wait until you get to your destination, check it out and have full access and use of it,” Taliaferro said.
“Should something occur in the presence or sight of the aviation police officer, they’re to do nothing but simply call dispatch. I asked [Evans] how long that could take. I said, `Do you understand the damage that could occur or the lives that could be [lost] while we’re waiting for dispatch to send someone?’ She was very quiet.”
Taliaferro said he was particularly concerned when Evans opened the meeting by explaining why she believed it was “not wise” to allow aviation security officers to carry weapons.
“Ms. Evans told me she was satisfied with the security level at O’Hare and Midway. That worried me. I said, `You can never be complacent or comfortable with security. I’ve done it for 35 years. You always look at and plan for possibilities, ‘” he said.
Zalewski noted that the city spends $19 million a year for 292 aviation security officers with annual salaries between $50,000 and $88,000 after undergoing four months of training.
“I’m not against people making a decent salary. But if you’re not gonna put a gun on them, we should get somebody cheaper,” Zalewski said.
“We left that meeting not knowing if they’re considered peace officers certified to carry weapons. If they can, it’s a no-brainer. If not, do we really need them out there considering what we’re paying them? Or should we use some of that money to beef up the Chicago Police presence and give a private security firm some of their duties?”
Zalewski noted that the jobs of 42 of the 171 Chicago Police officers authorized to be at O’Hare are vacant. Midway has 131 authorized police officers and 40 vacancies, he said.
In December 2015, CNN reported that unarmed officers at O’Hare and Midway had been told to run or “hide” if shootings break out.
More recently, Zalewski said it was time for Chicago to “fish or cut bait” on the issue of airport security either by allowing aviation security officers to carry weapons or by privatizing their jobs.
There are four levels of security at O’Hare: TSA, Chicago police, aviation security officers and private security. The private security contract with Universal Security Inc. has expired and been extended on a month-to-month basis.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown reported last summer that at least six of eight security worker union leaders were fired in what he described as “blatant retaliation” by Universal Security after participating in earlier airport job actions.
Universal was also one of several O’Hare contractors accused of “rampant wage theft” from hundreds of airport employees.
According to SEIU Local 1, a union attempting to organize airport workers, the alleged “theft” includes everything from failing to make up the difference for tipped employees whose gratuities leave them short of the city’s minimum wage to failing to pay employees who work through their lunch breaks and before and after their regular shifts.