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Aldermen go to bat for aviation police, say Council must OK changes

Aviation police officers join nine aldermen at a City Hall news conference Tuesday demanding that Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans get City Council approval before turning the trained officers into mere "monitors." | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The City Council created Chicago’s $19 million-a-year force of 292 unarmed aviation police officers and only the City Council can change it, aldermen warned Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has succeeded in turning trained police officers into mere observers, officers say — stripped of their power to make arrests, enforce warrants or write tickets.

“We’re monitors. She has rendered us useless,” said veteran Aviation Police officer Aurelius Cole, a former Chicago Housing Authority and Robbins Police officer.

“If we see an attack, she wants us to wait and call the Chicago Police Department. If we see some type of unruly passengers at a gate, we are to wait and call — not take action immediately as we’re trained to do.”

Flanked by Cole, his colleagues and their union, SEIU Local 73, nine aldermen held a City Hall news conference Tuesday to draw a line in the sand.

They plan to introduce an “order” at Wednesday’s City Council meeting restoring powers granted to aviation police officers under the Municipal Code.

The order further demands that Evans “halt any actions to further transition the role of aviation security officers” until hearings are held to determine, among other things, the “legal, financial, operational and security impact” of the change and the “security liability” it may impose on Chicago taxpayers.

“The Department of Aviation law enforcement agency was created by ordinance. In order to disband it or de-activate it, it should go before City Council and have its members vote on it,” said Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former Chicago Police officer who was demanding that aviation security officers be allowed to carry weapons until an April 9 passenger dragging fiasco.

“Any measure done outside of that is wrong. And I believe the actions of Commissioner Evans in this instance are completely wrong.”

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago Police officer-turned-firefighter, accused Evans of “putting, the city of Chicago, its residents and O’Hare Airport in jeopardy.”

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) talked about the television commercial that shows robbers storming into a bank and quotes a security guard as saying, “I’m just a monitor.”

Turning to the officers, Munoz said, “You are not monitors. … We are not gonna stand here and just allow the unilateral move to make them monitors.”

Andrew Velasquez III, the city’s new, $175,000-a-year managing deputy commissioner of safety and security at O’Hare, said Evans had two main goals when she changed the role of aviation police officers after Dr. David Dao was dragged off United Airlines Flight 3411 for refusing to give up his seat for a United crew member who needed to get to Louisville.

“Ensuring safety and security for all passengers and making sure another incident like the one on United Airlines 3411 never happens again,” Velasquez said in an emailed statement.

Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd) told the Chicago Sun-Times last week that Evans “doesn’t need our approval” to strip aviation police officers of their title and powers.

But, Zalewski warned that the political controversy triggered by that move is “not going away until we get everyone to agree that, `Yes, they stay’ or, `Yes, they go.’ “

The overriding question, Zalewski said, is whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel is willing to dig in his heels on an issue that has mobilized Black and Hispanic aldermen at a time when Emanuel is trying to shore up support from both groups with the 2019 mayoral election less than two years away.