Experts Believe Bolstering Police Presence at Airports Easier Than Arming TSA Agents

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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A Los Angeles Airport Police officer stands in front of Terminal 3 security screeners, the site of last week's shooting. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

A Los Angeles Airport Police officer stands in front of Terminal 3 security screeners, the site of last week’s shooting. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — A man carrying a note that said he wanted to “kill TSA” pulled a semi-automatic rifle from a bag and shot his way past a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport last Friday, killing one Transportation Security Administration officer and wounding two others.

The suspect in the deadly shooting, 23-year-old Paul Ciancia, is facing charges of murder of a federal officer and committing violence at an international airport. The charges could qualify him for the death penalty.

The incident sent shockwaves throughout a nation already somewhat wary of airline travel. Speculation has swirled surrounding the notion of arming TSA agents as a reactionary measure to the shooting. Could that and other such modifications to airport safety procedures be on the horizon?

CBS DC reached out to the TSA for comment. In the meantime, several experts did offer their thoughts on the matter, both of whom suggested different possibilities for creating a safer environment in the airport – particularly in presently less secure areas.

Rick Mathews, the director of the National Center for Security & Preparedness at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy of SUNY Albany, highlighted the most vulnerable part of an airport – the public portion where people first enter – as a weak spot in need of addressing. Doing so, however, is easier said than done, according to Mathews.

“Ultimately, you would have to look at everybody – every individual – before you get to a certain point. If you think about it, where would that occur? It occurs in every airport at the security checkpoint,” he said. “Everything before that, there are roaming police and things like that around.”

Mathews added, “The question becomes, should we check cars before they arrive at the gates? They do, in certain cases, but they aren’t checking every little thing, just the vehicle itself. So do we have armed guards? That’s not going to help if someone isn’t suspicious. And if they look through the … luggage of every person, you would have to get [to the airport] three to four hours before a flight. The balance is between being more secure and the combination of privacy, freedoms and flexibility.”

Glen Winn, the president of aviation security consulting firm Condor-Avsec, Inc., made reference to a course of action proposed by former Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn – a $9 billion venture that would have created a sterile environment at the airport by having people screened at an off-site location then bused over to terminal gates for their flights, had it been realized.

“Recently, the same plan has been presented again, to screen passengers in an off location in Englewood, Hawthorne or El Segundo,” he said.

In addition to the astronomical cost, Winn highlighted several other issues with such a proposal.

“The location would have to be constructed, a screening process implemented with new equipment or relocating equipment in the terminals. Plus busing [people] and securing the buses,” he said. “Then you still have to have roaming armed officers in the area after you’ve created that sterile complex. That would be an unbelievable procedure, especially for airports the size of LAX, JFK, Dulles or others of a similar size.”

Though arming TSA agents has been a popular suggestion, neither expert felt it was ultimately practical or wholly safe. Winn specifically noted that the costs inherent in arming TSA would take the organization to “another height” in its training costs.

“Those training cycles take at least 12 weeks. That’s a long time … and to now go back and take …TSA agents and training all of them if you’re going to arm them … is it necessary? I don’t think so,” he said.

Both Mathews and Winn agreed that bolstering police presence in the front of the airport is likely the easiest way to create a safer environment.

“Whatever we do has to be on the front side, the public side. We probably do need a stronger presence in the front area, which is obviously the most vulnerable area,” Mathews noted. “[People] clearly could bring anything from knives to guns, etc. [Heightened security] could get in the way of that in some places with roaming police officers or K-9 dogs.”

Winn also suggested, “Another [option], of course, is to reinforce at-curb oversight by the TSA or local police of people who are riding in by car, getting off of hotel buses, etc.”

But, as Mathews said, another roadblock lies in the sentiments of the public, highlighted by the fact that many Americans are already turned off by the nature of airport security, which they find to be “too intrusive” as is.

“We could be doing a lot more to be more secure here in the United States. We just may not like living here as much,” he stated. “The freedoms that we have, that’s what makes this country so great. More security might infringe upon that freedom. It’s a balance.”

Added Mathews, “We want security, but we don’t want it to be intrusive or hinder what we do.”

Winn similarly observed such impatience in Americans, and stated that “airlines have been meeting with the TSA to discuss how to cut down time [spent in security lines] because of complaints. Americans are very anxious, very impatient people.”

Still, those in the field realize that flight is essential to many businesses and cannot be suspended, and as such it is necessary for experts and officials to continue working together in order to solve the issue, now that it has been highlighted by Ciancia’s actions.

Noted Winn, “[N]ow, the ‘what if’ has happened. [And] in our environment, we have copy-catting … I hope that isn’t the case with this, but we have to be ready for that in the aviation business. It happened, and now it has crossed another bridge in our security. We need to take proper actions to combat it for the future.”

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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