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Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans gets a victory — on her way out the door

Aviation Police shoulder patch

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

An administrative law judge has handed Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans a victory on her way out the door — by upholding her response to the April 2017 passenger dragging fiasco aboard United Airlines Flight 3411.

In a case before the Illinois State Labor Relations Board, Judge Anna Hamburg Gal ruled that Evans did not violate state law or a union contract when she stripped the word “police” from the badges, uniforms and vehicles of Chicago’s $19 million-a-year aviation security force because the 292 officers “are not and have never been police or peace officers.”

Aviation security officers were blamed for dragging a flailing and bloodied Dr. David Dao down the aisle when the doctor refused to give up his seat for a United crew member who needed to get to Louisville.

Dr. David Dao is dragged off a United Airlines flight April 9. | Twitter

In order to be police, the law requires those officers to be “sworn in by the superintendent of police” — and that hasn’t happened “at any time in the past ten years,” the judge said.

Instead, aviation security officers were sworn in by the commanding officer of the police academy at the conclusion of their four months of training.

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“The union presented no evidence that the commanding officer of the academy was a surrogate for the superintendent or that the oath he administered rendered them as special police,” the 66-page ruling states.

Since aviation security officers were never police officers to begin with, the city “did not change the ASO’s authority as police when it removed the word `police’ from the ASO’s badges, vehicles and informed” the state law enforcement board that the officers “were not police,” the ruling states.

The union’s argument that Evans violated the union contract by changing the officers’ title, authority and role in the city’s response protocol also fell flat.

Hamburg Gal ruled that the changes were “not a mandatory subject of collective bargaining” because they did not impact “wages, benefits, hours or terms and conditions of employment.”

And even if they were, the “burdens that bargaining imposes” on Evans’ “inherent managerial authority outweigh any benefits” of negotiating those terms.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, left, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk near a concrete demolition site after a press conference for the next step in modernizing O'Hare International Airport with the groundbreaking of O'Hare's newest runway, 9C/27C, in Chicago on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans (left) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk after a press conference in August 2016 after the groundbreaking for a new O’Hare runway, 9C/27C. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

“The [city] has a strong managerial interest in determining how to best provide security at the airport” by “delineating the ASO’s role in a layered security process that includes employees from a number of different agencies, including federal agencies and the city’s own Police Department,” the ruling states.

Jeffrey Howard, chief of staff for SEIU Local 73, argued that the “short-sighted” ruling ignores the pivotal role aviation security offices have played at Chicago airports for 30 years.

“When you change status from police to security, there is an inherent lack of respect that comes from it,” Howard said. People will tell the officers, “`You’re not the police anymore. I don’t have to listen to you,’” Howard said.

“Diminishing the officers … also means that you have to bring other Chicago Police offices into the airport potentially, which is taking much-needed police off the streets to deal with the multitude of problems that are occurring on our streets every day, particularly in urban communities.”

Howard said the union is not giving up the fight to “restore the officers to their status as police.”

“Whatever options we may have — either legal, through the community, or through political avenues — we will pursue,” he said.

Now that Evans has announced her resignation, the union’s strongest option is to go the political route.

They can either convince newly-appointed Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee to reverse Evans’ decision, as its City Council allies hope to do.

Or they can round up the 26 votes needed to approve an ordinance introduced in mid-December that would restore the word “police” to their badges, uniforms and vehicles and reinstate their policing powers.

“We’re getting there,” Howard said when asked if he has the votes.

Aviation Department spokesperson Lauren Huffman said Evans
“acted appropriately and in the best interest of the airports by taking action to clarify the role and the responsibilities of aviation security officers.”

The city’s “layered security approach is “recognized by the TSA,” Huffman said.

Last year, Evans responded to the passenger-dragging fiasco by announcing that the unarmed officers would survive, but only after their roles are minimized, their training is overhauled and the word “police” is stripped from their badges, uniforms and vehicles.

Two aviation security officers have been fired – and a suspended officer has resigned – for their roles in the embarassment.

Five-day suspensions were handed to two other aviation security officers who boarded the plane in an incident capture on cellphone video that went viral, giving Chicago and United an international black eye.

One of the suspensions was reduced to two days after a grievance. The other suspended officer also filed a grievance, then withdrew it and resigned.

“The department did not have established training protocols as to how those situations were supposed to be handled. We’ve been asking for training for years,” Howard said, accusing Evans of blaming “the little guy.”