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Israeli agency to review O’Hare, Midway; security picture still blurry

Aviation officers packed a City Council committee meeting on Monday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The confusion about security at O’Hare and Midway Airports laid bare by the passenger-dragging fiasco involving Dr. David Dao got even muddier on Monday.

In another contentious appearance before the City Council’s Aviation Committee, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans disclosed that she has hired the Israel Airports Authority to review facilities, technologies and security protocol at Chicago airports.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) hailed the agency that runs Israeli airports as the “Michael Jordan” of airport security.

Evans proclaimed the agency, which is now advising airports in Dallas and Singapore, as the “well-recognized international leader by TSA and others.”

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans attended and testified at Monday’s meeting of the City Council’s Aviation Committee. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans attended and testified at Monday’s meeting of the City Council’s Aviation Committee. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

“They’re called in many times after incidents. They were called in after Brussels. They were called in on Egypt Air,” she said.

“When we were thinking about that evolving risk, we said, ‘Everyone calls them after an incident. Why not call them in before an incident and do an overall assessment?’”

The $245,000 initial review is expected to take five months, followed by a second phase with a $500,000 price tag. There will be no minority subcontractors because there are no minority firms “with this expertise,” Evans said, angering aldermen who also questioned the need to go outside the United States.

Among other things, the Israelis will examine Evans’ controversial decision to strip the word “police” from the badges, uniforms and vehicles of the city’s $19-million-a-year, 292-employee force of unarmed aviation officers.

For the first time since suspending four aviation police officers for their role in dragging a bloodied Dao off United Flight 3411 on April 9 for refusing to relinquish his seat for a United crew member, Evans said she was “very proud of the service” they provide and considers them a vital part of the multilayered airport security system.

But she was adamant about removing the word “police” from their uniforms, badges and vehicles.

“According to the Chicago Police and according to corporation counsel, they are not police. Calling them police causes confusion — with them, with the public. … We absolutely need clarity. We don’t have it today. And that’s not good for that integrated response,” Evans said.

“It needs to be very carefully done and I don’t think we should rush. But we do now know that a risk was created by the confusion between the security officers and police. United settled it in this case [and Dao agreed not to sue the city]. But we have a known risk. We cannot escape the responsibility of alleviating that risk.”

At first, Evans said the name change would go through within five months after talks with Service Employees International Union Local 73. The only question is what the new name will be, she said.

Then Evans acknowledged that the name change would be among the many issues examined by the Israel Airports Authority.

“I’m afraid, commissioner, you’ve contradicted yourself here. And you’ve added quite a bit of confusion,” Southwest Side Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) told Evans.

Aviation Police Officer Aurelius Cole urged aldermen not to change strip the word “police” from the agency. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
Aviation Police Officer Aurelius Cole urged aldermen not to change strip the word “police” from the agency. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Quinn wasn’t the only one playing to the crowd of aviation security officers who have filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the name change and packed the committee room in a show of force.

The officers still had the word “police” on their arm patches and consider themselves police officers after undergoing four months of training at the Chicago Police Academy.

“You’re making a big mistake,” said Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former Chicago Police officer who was the driving force behind a move to let aviation security officers carry guns before the passenger dragging fiasco.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) agreed that the title of “police” gives officers “dignity and respect” and Evans is talking about “down-zoning their title.”

Indicted Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) noted that aviation security officers are trained “law enforcement officers” by state law and that title “cannot be removed.”

Aviation officers and their union representatives accused Evans of endangering the traveling public as well as the officers themselves by proposing the name change.

“I have been an aviation police officer for nearly 30 years. I have never been referred to by anybody — especially a commissioner — as being ‘not the police.’ I find it disrespectful. I’m humiliated,” Officer John Jimmerson said. “We are sworn officers. We raised our hands. We took the oath. We have been sanctioned by the superintendent. … I just can’t believe some of the things that have been said. We’ve been tarnished.”

Officer Aurelius Cole, a former Chicago Housing Authority and Robbins Police officer, said aviation security officers are “certified” as a state law enforcement agency and there “shouldn’t be confusion.”

“We’ve been removing people from planes since I started in 2000. … We’ve saved lives. We have actually arrested people. … We want to continue to be the professionals that we are. We want to continue to go forth — not step backwards. Downgrading would put the public at a risk — big-time,” he said.

Under hostile questioning by Ald. Edward Burke (14th), Evans also disclosed that she fired O’Hare and Midway security chief Jeff Redding because of a “non-disclosure issue.”

She was referring to Redding’s failure to fully disclose the sexual harassment allegations that prompted the Illinois Tollway to fire him six months before he was hired by the city.

At one point, Burke asked Evans whether she knew before she hired Redding to fill the $118,020-a-year job that he was a “sexual predator.”

“No. His HR record didn’t include any information on that,” the commissioner said.

The Aviation Committee also advanced an ordinance that formalizes a security change Evans made on the day after the passenger dragging incident.

It states: “No employee of the City of Chicago shall aid airline personnel in the removal of a passenger from an airplane at any public airport owned or operated by the city or from entering an aircraft unless a crime was committed, or in the case of a medical emergency.”