United fiasco prompts proposal to disband aviation police force

SHARE United fiasco prompts proposal to disband aviation police force

Ald. Ray Lopez. | Sun-Times files

The Chicago Department of Aviation police force — which includes three officers who boarded a United Airlines flight at O’Hare Airport and dragged out Dr. David Dao — would no longer exist if an airline skycap-turned-alderman has anything to say about it.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) introduced an “order” at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that would mandate the Chicago Police Department and the city’s Department of Aviation “identify means for the consolidation” of the two law-enforcement agencies.

The order would establish a 60-day timetable for creating a “singular local law enforcement entity” at O’Hare and Midway airports.

Though the city lists their job titles as “aviation security officers,” the Department of Aviation officers traditionally have operated as a secondary, uniformed police force at O’Hare. They have arrest powers but do not carry guns.

Lopez acknowledged there would be a considerable cost to asking Chicago Police officers to absorb the aviation police force, which costs $19 million a year to operate and has 292 employees.

The salaries and benefits of Chicago police officers are considerably higher than aviation police, who are paid anywhere between $55,000 and $88,000 a year.

Chicago Police officers also require more training. They spend six months in the police academy, compared to four months for aviation cops.

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But after the fiasco that saw three aviation cops placed on paid administrative leave for storming the United Express Flight 3411 and dragging Dao down the aisle for refusing to give up his seat, Lopez said it is well worth the added cost.

He noted that Chicago taxpayers will be on the hook for Dao’s injuries, which his attorneys describe as a broken nose, two missing teeth and a sinus problem that will require surgery.

“There will be an increase in costs, obviously, because we’re talking about different pay scales,” said Lopez, who spent 12 years as a skycap for Southwest Airlines at Midway. “But a number of those costs are well within reason [compared to] the possibilities that we are opening ourselves up with when we have two dueling work groups trying to maintain the security of our airports.”

“Whatever the cost is, it would be well worth it — both financially for the city as well as for the delivery of public safety at the airports.”

Lopez also pointed to the security issues raised by the evasive testimony of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans. At a hearing last week, Evans could not explain why at least one of the aviation security officers aboard the plane still had the word “police” on his jacket, even though she had ordered the name removed in January.

Mayoral press secretary Matt McGrath reacted coolly to the proposed merger. “The problem on that plane was a lack of judgment, not the lack of a weapon, and this wouldn’t solve that problem,” McGrath wrote in an email.

McGrath was non-committal about a companion ordinance introduced by a handful of aldermen that would prohibit any city employee from “assisting airline personnel in the removal of any passenger” from a plane at O’Hare and Midway “unless a crime was committed” or there was a “medical emergency.”

“Ginger [Evans] has acted swiftly to suspend the officers involved and she is doing a thorough review of the incident, which we’re not going to get ahead of,” McGrath wrote.

Earlier this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the United fiasco proves why aviation security officers should not be armed and that he would await the outcome of a broader review to determine whether the city force should exist.

“There’s been some question by some people over the last couple of years about allowing those aviation officers to carry a gun. … My administration has opposed that. I think that’s pretty clear that’s wrong,” the mayor said.

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