The Chicago Department of Aviation has been paying for firearms training for its unarmed security force for decades. It’s a force that entered the spotlight when video of an aviation officer violently dragging a paying passenger off a United Airlines plane went viral.
Each of the department’s 290 aviation officers underwent initial firearms training at the Chicago Police training academy at a cost of $2,200 per officer, according the city. That’s an expense of $638,000 for the current force alone.
“If you’re going to through that training at the Chicago police academy – not 6 months but 4 months – get certified, then be told you’re not allowed to carry a weapon, then why are we doing all that training?” asked Alderman Michael Zalewski, chairman of the city council’s aviation committee.
Questions about the cost and necessity of firearms training come as the aviation department seeks to rebrand the airport force.
For years, the word “police” appeared on the officers’ uniforms and cars. The State of Illinois certified the department as a law enforcement agency.
But the United Airlines dragging incident prompted a review of airport security. In a report released July 12, aviation commissioner Ginger Evans conceded “confusion” over the role of the airport officers. Evans decided to remove the word “police” from their title and refer to the force as “aviation security officers.” “[Their jobs] do not require police powers or special police authority,” Evans wrote.
In early July, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training & Standards Board decertified the department as a law enforcement agency.
The reclassification has prompted questions from aldermen and anger from the airport officers.
“We have to attend the police academy,” aviation officer Johnny Jimmerson said. “We have to pass the police academy. You have to be state certified to get the job and keep the job.”
Union officials suggest a sinister motive is behind what they see as a downgrade.
“Ultimately we think they want to totally disband our unit and turn us into $15 an hour security guards,” said SEIU Local 73 representative Jeffrey Howard. “I have no disrespect for security guards, but we are the police and have been the police for over 30 years and should continue to be the police.”
Some aldermen question whether airports will be less secure as a result of the removal of the word “police” from the officers’ title.
“I think people would feel more secure knowing that there are police officers there rather than security guards,” 38th Ward Ald. Nick Sposato said. “Nobody respects security guards anywhere.”
Airport security is multi-layered and falls under the jurisdiction of several agencies including U.S. Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration and the Chicago Police Department.
The Chicago Department of Aviation force typically provides perimeter security, crowd control and some medical assistance inside the terminals. New instructions from the department of aviation dictate that in most instances, aviation officers will provide back-up to armed Chicago police officers. Aviation security officers have also been instructed to no longer board airplanes to settle disputes between airlines and their passengers.
As for the firearms training for an unarmed security force, the Chicago Department of Aviation insists it was a required step in being certified as a law enforcement agency. However, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training & Standards Board tell WGN Investigates firearms training is only required for officers who actually carry guns. Officials from the state agency say they have also wondered why firearms training was provided for the unarmed force.
Now the city has decided to stop the practice.
“Because aviation security officers have never been authorized or required to carry a firearm for their duties at the airports, [the department] will no longer sponsor firearm requalification training,” said Chicago Department of Aviation spokesperson Lauren Huffman. “Making these and other changed will further distinguish the important roles of both unarmed and armed personnel.”