LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon speaks about challenges of airport security

The key is policing

The key to policing at LAX is to vary how officers are deployed on a regular basis, airport police chief Patrick Gannon said. (Associated Press photo.)

Here’s the second part of my Nov. 11 interview with Patrick Gannon, who for the past year has been the chief of Los Angeles World Airports police. After discussing the shooting incident at LAX in part one of the interview, we moved on to talk about the overall challenges of airport policing.

This interview has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.

You talk about the need to layer security at the airport. What do you mean by this? Besides having officers in the terminals, what other pieces do you have at your disposal?

We have a very robust intelligence gathering piece. We are part of joint regional information center here and the joint terrorism task force. We get security briefings on a daily basis for things that are happening not only here but also things that are occurring internationally. We are an international port. We monitor disputes and disagreements and feuds and wars that are occurring in other parts of the world. In some cases some people from those nations are gathering at this airport and are gathering in the same locations to get on a flight or to exit flights. So we have to have an understanding of that. The other thing we had to have an understanding of is just what happens domestically here in the United States regarding active shooters and those types of things. All of us in law enforcement have learned tremendously from incidents that occurred at Sandy Hook elementary school, from the naval yard shooting, Fort Hood shooting, Aurora theater shooting, Columbine — you name it.  You try to ask, ‘How could that be avoided.’ Or in the event it can’t be avoided, how can you respond and respond appropriately?

Overall, what’s the role of airport police?
I think our job is very wide ranging. Just like any other municple police agency, there are a wide ranges of things you’re engaged in. It isn’t just about waiting for some terrorist cell to raise its ugly head and dealing with it appropriately. There are everyday issues that come on an airport. We get involved in domestic violence disputes in our terminals. We have drunk people that try to get on a flight. We have drunk people on flights that get off flights. We have fights in midair. About once or twice a month, someone will pass away and die on a flight that’s inbound to LAX. We have traffic issues like you would have in any large city. To keep traffic moving is a big responsibility for us. We have theft issues periodically where people take things that are not theirs, just like you would have in any large venue. Luckily those problems aren’t huge but they are constant. Plus, I have three airports. It’s not just LAX. Van Nuys Airport and L.A./Ontario International Airport are also my responsibility.

I wrote recently about how many airport employees do not go through security screening when they come to work. Does that concern you?

They don’t go through a magnetometer every time they come to the airport. But to get a job here you have to go through a background check and a security screening. And when you enter into a secured area, you have to enter only using your credentials that identify you personally. You don’t just walk into the airport if you’re an employee. But does every employee go through a TSA screening like a passenger does? No. That doesn’t happen. That’s 40-something thousand people. That’s physically impossible to do, unless you want to set up something that is incredibly elaborate. And I’m not so sure you’d be better off doing that.

What about the dry ice bombs that exploded at the airport in October? They were allegedly placed by airport employees. Is this a potential concern?

The dry ice bombing thing? That’s a prank. That was a stupid stunt. Did it give us some cause for concern ? Absolutely. Do I worry about those things? Absolutely. We spend a tremendous amount of time on those inner areas of the airport. I have undercover officers. I have task forces with the LAPD that deal with a bunch of different issues in those particular areas.

Some people who regularly hang out at the airport tell me your undercover officers are relatively easy to spot. 

I hope they see undercover officers everywhere. Half that time, maybe it isn’t an undercover officer. Maybe half the time it is. I don’t mind talking about it. I just want people to be guessing. In law enforcement, you try to keep people guessing. Generally, sophisticated bad guys that are looking to cause harm or to commit a crime do surveillance. They pay attention. They stake things out. They look. They watch. Part of the discussion that has come up since the Nov. 1 shooting is that I am not of the belief that my security picture should look the same all the time. It has to be constantly changing and constantly in flux. I have to give the appearance that the bad guys don’t exactly know what we are doing and how we are going to do it. That’s my advantage.

Have you made any concrete changes in security since Nov. 1?

There has been a lot of discussion about whether we should put an officer back behind the podium, sitting behind each security screening area. That just doesn’t make sense to me at all. There have also been some discussions in some circles that the TSA officers should be armed. I think there is a one-stop fix. If you want a knee jerk reaction and you say, ‘OK we’re going to do this,’ you’ve failed because you haven’t created a safer airport. I have a laundry list of thoughts and ideas on ways we can get better at what we do. Is that something I can necessarily share with you? No, because that means I’m giving away my strategy. But honestly, I don’t think you can go through a incident like this and just say, ‘We performed flawlessly and we aren’t going to look at anything else.’ You can’t bury your head in the sand like that.

Much has been made of your recent decision to stop staffing each security checkpoint with a seated, armed officer. Why’d you make the change? Was it the right decision?

Let’s think about. You come into the airport. Someone drops you off at the curb or you park in the parking lot. You come across the street onto the curb and into the airport. You get your boarding pass, if you haven’t already pre-printed it. You go toward this screening area. You go through the screening area where you take off your shoes and your belt. You take your laptop out of your bag. You put all your bags through screening. You go through some sort of metal detection devices. And then you come out onto the other side of screening. If you have a gun on you, you will never make it to that particular point. So where the officers would normally sit on the other side of screening is really my safe zone. Everyone who gets to that point is, conceivably, unarmed. Where my problem is going to lie is just like we saw on Nov. 1 –from that curb inward to the screening area. That’s where the confrontation is going to start. That’s where it is going to take place. In addition, it isn’t just about the TSA screening locations. In 2002, the shooting at El Al occurred in the ticketing line. It didn’t occur at security.

Now you have your officers roam the terminals. Is that a better way of doing it?

I have a responsibility to all of the employees who work at this airport, including TSA. I have to judge where that threat is probably going to come from. When you take a look at domestically what we have had as far as these mass shootings that have occurred, they have all occurred for the most part with a single gunman with some sort of fixation on something that take it upon themselves to go into some place that has a lot of people and to wreak destruction. It seems to me, based on all of my experience, that I am more likely to deal with those issues from the curb line in, rather than behind screening. This spreads us out and it makes us more unpredictable. If the bad guy knows there is always going to be a cop that the screening, it changes the way in which they do things. I am not going to always be 100 percent successful. But it seems to me that’s the best way to keep people here as safe as possible.

There were two well publicized events on Nov. 8 at LAX. In the first, a man said he might have a destructive device in his luggage. In the second, a man was seen brandishing a gun. After an investigation, it was determined that both cases were relatively minor. Were people overreacting?

The gun incident was clearly not an overreaction. It was a good reaction. It was a reaction to a set of circumstances that looked odd to everyone involved. That alerted law enforcement to stop and take a look at what actually occurred. I like that kind of attention. I don’t want someone to see someone manipulating a weapon and not say anything. I think it’s something that we have to take seriously. We’ll investigate it thoroughly and then see where everything lies. Since Nov. 1, we have seen an increase in the number of people alerting us to bags that are unattended and those types of things. But I have not seen hysteria. I have not seen this hyper sensitivity to things. I  think people have pretty much gotten back to normal as far as traveling goes.

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