Aviation cops to survive passenger-dragging flap, lose ‘police’ label

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A ruling by an administrative law judge has backed Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans’ decision to strip the word “police” from the airport security force. Several alderman had opposed that change.

A ruling by an administrative law judge has backed Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans’ decision to strip the word “police” from the airport security force. Several alderman had opposed that change. | Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times file

Chicago’s $19 million-a-year force of 292 unarmed aviation police officers will survive a passenger-dragging fiasco, but only after their roles are diminished, their training is overhauled and the word “police” is stripped from their uniforms and vehicles.

That’s the bottom line of a review of the muddied state of O’Hare Airport security conducted by Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans after aviation security officers dragged a bloodied and flailing Dr. David Dao off United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9 for refusing to relinquish his seat for a United crew member.

“They are not police. People who are not police can’t use the word police,” Evans said Wednesday.

After reviewing security at the top 30 U.S. airports, Evans said the lines are clearly drawn outside Chicago.

“You have an armed law enforcement agency, in our case Chicago Police. In combination with that, you have unarmed, non-sworn security personnel. That is the way it’s done in the U.S.,” she said.

“This got confused some years ago and it’s time to eliminate that confusion.”

Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents the 292 officers, said Evans “wants to scapegoat aviation police officers rather than take a look at her own failed policies and mismanagement.” Union members in the process of taking a “vote of no confidence” in Evans.

In a statement, Local 73 Trustee Dian Palmer vowed to pursue “all remedies available” to the union — including a grievance, the Illinois Labor board, and in court.

Evans also revealed that Inspector General Joe Ferguson has completed his “expedited disciplinary review” of the passenger dragging incident and recommended disciplinary action against the four aviation security officers placed on administrative leave immediately after the incident.

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

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

The commissioner refused to articulate the punishment she would recommend, repeating only Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s marching orders: “nothing is sacred.”

Summoned by United, three unarmed aviation police officers boarded Flight 3411 and dragged Dao down the aisle when the doctor refused to give up his seat for a United crew member. Dao has already settled with United for an undisclosed amount.

But viral video of the incident fast became an international symbol of passenger discontent with the flying experience and a civic embarrassment that damaged Chicago’s reputation as an international tourist destination.

Wednesday, Evans announced steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. They include:

  • Designating Chicago Police officers as the “lead on all disturbance calls at airports, in addition to those on aircrafts.” An existing order had failed to clearly define the role of aviation security officers.
  • Forging ahead with Evans’ plan — ordered in January, but never implemented — to strip the word “police” from the uniforms, badges and vehicles of aviation officers.
  • Updating the city’s security manual to remove “outdated policies, procedures and protocols” for security personnel.
  • Developing new training for aviation security officers who currently spend four months in the Chicago Police academy.

Evans noted Wednesday that the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board ruled June 15 that newly hired aviation security officers are “precluded from attending” the police academy.

Though their uniforms and vehicles have long said “police” and the officers get trained at the police academy, city records list them as “aviation security officers,” not police officers. And – much to their chagrin – the officers are not allowed to carry guns.

Besides the aviation cops, armed Chicago Police Department officers also patrol O’Hare and Midway, prompting proposals for CPD to absorb the lower-paid aviation cops into their ranks.

In preparing her report, Evans noted that she reviewed daily incident reports over a 15-month period ending in March filed by police and aviation security officers.

Aviation security officers responded to only two “very minor” incidents.

“They are not today responding to disturbances and incidents. Chicago Police are. … Chicago Police are doing the heavy lifting,” she said. “Nothing is going to change on a day-to-day basis as a result of these changes that I’m making today.”

Emanuel has said he would await the outcome of Evans’ investigation before deciding whether the unarmed aviation security force should continue to exist.

Evans said she decided to keep an in-house force that plays a vital role in the multi-layered system of airport security.

“They’re doing badge checks. They’re doing door checks. They’re trained to help with medical situations. That’s extremely valuable,” Evans said.

But she argued that it’s critical to re-define the role of those unarmed officers to eliminate confusion that may have inadvertently triggered the passenger dragging fiasco. Airport officers “have been called to aircraft disturbances something like 52 times [over 15 months],” Evans said.

“Never had anything like this before.”

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