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Long-running legal battle over role of aviation security officers resolved in city’s favor

The security force was thrust into the spotlight by an infamous passenger-dragging incident in 2017.

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.
Hundreds of aviation security officers had filed a lawsuit over their loss of their status as law enforcement officers.
Sun-Times file

A long-running legal battle stemming from the 2017 passenger-dragging fiasco aboard United Airlines Flight 3411 has ended in the city’s favor, finally clarifying the role aviation security officers play in the layers of security that protect O’Hare and Midway airports.

In a 12-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by aviation security officers who had accused the city of depriving them of their status as law enforcement officers and stripping them of their law enforcement work histories.

Gettleman’s ruling noted it was the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board — not the city — that de-activated the Chicago Department of Aviation as a law enforcement agency and, as a result, deprived the aviation security officers of their status as law enforcement officers. That action was upheld by the Illinois Labor Relations Board.

“Plaintiffs cannot relitigate here issues that have already been decided by the ILRB,” Gettleman wrote in his ruling, issued Saturday.

On April 5, 2017, the law enforcement board concluded it “could not trace law enforcement authority from the Illinois statutes” for the city’s aviation security officers “in the manner that we can for CPD officers and we can no longer find them to be law enforcement officers.”

Four days later, three aviation security dragged a bloodied and flailing Dr. David Dao down the aisle for refusing to give up his seat for a United crew member who needed to get to Louisville.

Three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers remove Dr. David Dao from United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017.
Three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers remove Dr. David Dao from United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017.
Provided photo

The judge concluded the Chicago Department of Aviation “should never have been certified” as a law enforcement agency and aviation security officers “should never have been certified” as law enforcement officers. But it is “undisputed” that the state law enforcement board did both when asked to do so during the 1990s.

“ASO’s were listed with the [state board] as having work histories as [law enforcement officers] even though they should have not been,” the ruling states, noting that those work histories were not destroyed.

“It is doubtful that plaintiffs can have a constitutionally-protected property right in something to which they were never entitled.”

Former Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, who gave a deposition in the case, said Monday it was “extremely important for Chicago to get this behind them.”

“The huge efforts that we took to clarify some of the very dated procedures and the lines of authority were clearly worth it,” she said.

“Aviation security officers are a very important part of the security network. But this struggle of them kind of fighting their duties has been, quite frankly, a distraction and, as the Dr. Dao incident showed, detrimental. [Dragging] a passenger. That’s the opposite of what’s supposed to happen.”

Evans said she fought hard — over objections from Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and others — to carve out a role for aviation security officers “separate and distinct” from Chicago Police because “you can’t have police everywhere” at O’Hare and Midway.

“You don’t want a bunch of people wandering around after the checkpoint with guns in their hands. … There are not supposed to be any guns post-security. So the armed police stay near the checkpoints for obvious reasons. And they’re required by the TSA to respond to the checkpoint within a certain number of minutes,” she said.

“The ASO’s are all over the place — checking gates, checking door alarms, around the terminal, kind of eyes and ears. Making sure that no one goes through a door they’re not supposed to. If something gets out of control, they call the police and the police respond. ... With Dr. Dao, had they just waited a minute or two, Chicago police came to the scene, realized it was not a criminal matter. It was an airline policy matter that really shouldn’t have had any intervention from anyone at the city.”

The aviation security officers are represented by SEIU Local 73, whose president, Dian Palmer, could not be reached for comment. Nor could the law firm of Sweeney, Scharkey & Blanchard, which filed the lawsuit.

Summoned by United, three aviation security officers boarded Flight 3411 and dragged Dao down the aisle, leaving the doctor with injuries that his attorneys described as a broken nose, two chipped teeth and a sinus problem that will require surgery.

Attorney Thomas Demetrio addresses a packed news conference at the Union League Club in April 2017 about the incident earlier that month involving the removal of Dr. David Dao from a United Airlines flight at O’Hare International Airport. Among those appearing with Demetrio at the news conference was Dao’s daughter, Crystal Dao (seated at end of table, right foreground).
Attorney Thomas Demetrio addresses a packed news conference at the Union League Club in April 2017 about the incident earlier that month involving the removal of Dr. David Dao from a United Airlines flight at O’Hare International Airport. Among those appearing with Demetrio at the news conference was Dao’s daughter, Crystal Dao (seated at end of table, right foreground).
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Dao and United subsequently settled that lawsuit for an undisclosed amount. The settlement included an agreement not to seek damages from Chicago taxpayers.

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

Two aviation security officers were fired — and a suspended officer resigned — for their roles in the incident.

In an emailed statement, law department spokesperson Kristen Cabanban said the city is “pleased with the court’s decision to dispose of this class-action lawsuit.”

“Aviation Security Officers ... are a crucial element in our multilayered security approach and will remain a valuable workforce in the airports going forward, especially as we continue making modern security investments in our airport improvements,” she wrote.