United passenger fiasco exposes wider security concerns at O’Hare

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Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans testifies in April before the City Council’s aviation committee. | Maria Cardona/Sun-Times

Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans on Thursday expressed her “extreme regret” about viral videos of a bloodied passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight by Chicago aviation police, but her evasive testimony at a City Council hearing exposed broader questions about the state of security at O’Hare and Midway airports.

Under questioning by Ald. Edward Burke (14th), Evans revealed that she had ordered aviation security officers — who have been lobbying for the right to carry guns with Burke as their champion — to remove the word “police” from their uniforms.

“In a directive in January, we ordered them to not use the word ‘police.’ To use the word ‘security’ on their jackets,” Evans said.

But Burke pointedly noted what the videos show: that the word “police” was still on the uniform of at least one officer involved in removing 69-year-old Dr. David Dao off a United Express jet bound for Louisville Sunday evening.

“Incorrectly,” the commissioner interjected.

Burke countered, “Your officer was wearing a jacket with the word ‘police’ on it. Why didn’t you enforce your order?”

Evans sheepishly replied, “That’s one of the questions that we will be reviewing. There’s already been significant discussion. . . . I would prefer to answer that at a later time. All of that is under review.”

Evans talked so softly, she was difficult to hear. Aviation Committee Chairman Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd) had to ask her to speak up.

The line of questioning marked the latest in a line of controversies involving the law-enforcement force that ultimately answers to Evans. It’s separate from the Chicago Police Department, which also patrols the city’s airports.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration currently spends $19 million a year for 292 aviation security officers with annual salaries ranging from $50,000 to $88,000. The officers undergo four months of police-academy training and have arrest powers, but they do not carry guns.

In January, shortly after a mass shooting in Florida at the Fort Lauderdale airport, aviation security officers were sent an email saying they wouldn’t be dispatched to any disturbances outside of secured areas at O’Hare, according to a CNN report. In December 2015, CNN reported that aviation police had been trained to run and hide if they were to confront a gunman.

In 2011, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the aviation police force included 54 retired Chicago cops who were drawing $2.5 million a year in police pension payments on top of the $1.9 million in salary the aviation department was paying them. The youngest retired cop on the force at that time was 51. The oldest was 86.

“They have a radio. . . . If there is no imminent threat to a passenger or someone else, they stabilize the situation until Chicago Police arrive,” Evans told Burke. “Chicago Police have very fast response times. They’ve never let us down in an emergency situation.”

Burke replied, “Well, they weren’t there this time, were they?” — an apparent reference to Sunday’s United case.

City officials have long said that Chicago Police officers patrol public areas outside security-screening points at the airports and that the aviation police handle secure areas. Both departments would coordinate with federal law enforcement partners, including the Transportation Security Administration, in the event of an emergency.

After Thursday’s hearing, the role of the aviation security cops seemed murky, though.

Burke grilled Evans and her aides, asking them for the “general orders” that apply to aviation security officers.

O’Hare security chief Jeff Redding told the aldermen there were none, only “standard operating procedures.” Burke then asked for the “standard operating procedure” that applies to use of force.

“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” Redding said.

Burke was incensed. “So, you’re the deputy commissioner and you’re in charge of safety and security for Chicago’s airports. . . . And you’re not aware of whether or not there is a use of force order . . . that is distributed to your officers,” Burke said.

Redding replied that the standard operating procedure for aviation security officers dates back to 2008 and it’s in the process of being updated. “We’re going through that piece-by-piece right now,” he said.

Redding also revealed that it is not the city’s policy to “interfere” when airlines have customer service issues. But, when a security issue arises, aviation security officers are told to detain the customer until Chicago Police officers arrive.

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That’s not what happened Sunday.

Four passengers were involuntarily bumped from a flight from O’Hare to Louisville after the plane was already boarded, but Dao refused to leave his seat.

That’s when three aviation cops boarded the plane and dragged the doctor down the aisle. According to his attorneys, Dao suffered a concussion and will require reconstructive surgery on his sinuses.

Although three aviation officers have been placed on administrative leave over the incident, Evans had been mum all week about it — even though it has damaged Chicago’s reputation as an international travel hub and exposed beleaguered taxpayers to a potential legal liability.

On Thursday, the commissioner broke her silence and expressed “extreme regret” for the actions taken by the aviation security officers who boarded United Express Flight 3411. But, when asked later what they did wrong, she refused to say and walked out of a news conference.

During the hearing, Evans promised to review “every aspect of our operations,” re-train aviation security officers and disclosed that she had hired an “international security specialist” long before the United fiasco.

Towards that end, Burke insisted on replaying the viral video of a bloodied Dao being dragged down the aisle, as if everyone in attendance hadn’t seen it already.

The City Council’s most powerful alderman even dredged up and narrated a year-old video of a 92-year-old woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s screaming as authorities removed her comfort dog because a flight attendant found the animal threatening.

The second video was played to poke holes in the argument made by John Slater, United’s operations chief at O’Hare, that Sunday’s incident was “extremely rare” and that he had never seen anything like in his career.

“There’s no script for this,” Slater said.

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