Viral video hurts chance Chicago aviation officers will be armed

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Viral video of a man being dragged off a United Airlines flight has virtually snuffed out any chance for city aviation security officers to be authorized to carry weapons, an influential alderman said Monday.

Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), chairman of the City Council’s Aviation Committee, said Sunday’s embarrassing incident at O’Hare Airport was so “poorly handled from A-to-Z” that the officers have lost their argument to bear arms.

Zalewski said the aviation officer who is now on a leave of absence had no business getting involved in the incident, let alone boarding the flight from Chicago to Louisville.

It should have been handled by United, O’Hare’s flagship carrier, in the boarding area, before passengers ever boarded the flight, the alderman said. And if the airline needed backup to handle a recalcitrant or unruly passenger, that should have been provided by Chicago Police officers, who were just minutes away when the viral video was taken, Zalewski said.

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“The flight was overbooked. They were looking for people to give up their seats. . . . This all should have been taken care of in the holding area — not on the plane,” Zalewski said Monday. “It wasn’t a shining example for aviation security officers on how they might react to future situations, especially if they were armed. . . . If it was their judgment that this was going to help their cause, just the opposite happened.”

Zalewski said he talked to Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans about the incident and she was furious. Does that mean the idea of arming the officers is dead?

“If it’s not killed, it’s mortally wounded,” Zalewski said. “Considering that they’re fighting for the right to carry arms out there, it probably couldn’t have come at a worse time for their cause.”

Evans could not be reached for comment. Sources said the commissioner is so livid about the damage done to O’Hare Airport’s reputation as a travel hub, aviation security police may well be hard-pressed to hold on to their jobs.

The city currently spends $19 million a year for 292 aviation security cops, with annual salaries ranging from $50,000 to $88,000 after undergoing four months of training. They are not permitted to carry weapons.

Prior to Sunday’s embarrassment, that made no sense to Zalewski. “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,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times last month.

Until Monday, a handful of influential aldermen had been pressuring Evans to arm the officers, perhaps by making them part of the Chicago Police Department. That new idea originated with Ald. Edward Burke (14th), powerful chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee.

It was endorsed last month by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ordinance authorizing aviation security officers to carry weapons has been languishing for months in a City Council committee.

Evans has argued that 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.

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