In the wake of a violent machete attack at a airport security checkpoint, the union that represents Transportation Security Administration officers is calling for a new elite force that would be armed and authorized to use deadly force at airports across the U.S.
Currently, the union says, those powers are relegated to a patchwork of local police forces who don’t report to the TSA.
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said TSA employees are banned from carrying weapons despite being on the front lines of aviation security.
In the Friday night New Orleans attack at Louis Armstrong International airport, a local sheriff’s deputy shot suspect Richard White three times after he stormed a checkpoint waving a machete and spraying security personnel with wasp repellent. He was also found to be carrying a bag full of molotov cocktails. In his car police found smoke bombs and gas cylinders.
“This man was swinging very hard, very, very hard with the machete and if he would have made contact with anybody it would have been terrible,” TSA officer Carroll Richel, who was injured in the attack, said in a news conference.
Cox said TSA employees are often the first people who passengers come in contact with at airports – making them especially vulnerable. And the current system relies too heavily on local police departments to react to, detain and arrest suspects, he said.
“The employees that do the screening at all the airports now twice have become the victims and become the targets of people that want to do harm,” he said.
The other incident he is referring to happened two years ago when an armed suspect at Los Angeles International Airport shot and killed a TSA officer and ran through a security checkpoint and terrorized passengers before being arrested and charged by Los Angeles Airport Police.
“We have had one of our employees murdered in Los Angeles. We had an attempted murder this Friday in New Orleans. We need law enforcement there that is ready to respond,” Cox said. “Sure in New Orleans, the local law enforcement responded to the incident, but we’re talking about 480 airports across the country.”
Security measures at every airport are different and the local police departments are not under the authority of TSA supervisors, Cox said.
But the union isn’t calling for all TSA employees to be armed - just a new unit within the agency that is specially trained to handle volatile situations in tight spaces like security lines.
But not everyone supports the union proposal.
Chad Wolf, former TSA assistant administrator, calls it a bad idea and a distraction from the main mission of screening for explosives and other threats.
“Tacking that responsibility onto a TSA officer in addition to all the screening duties, all the duties they have to do at the checkpoint beyond that, I think is a recipe for disaster,” he said. And he disputed the notion the TSA does not have authority over airport security needs.
Airports across the country are constantly updating guidelines to better integrate local police forces into security planning, Wolf said.
“There needs to be certain response times agreed to and that needs to be worked out at the local airport level,” he said.
Opponents also note the high probability Congress would balk at having to pay for creating, training and deploying a new national police force, and say it could be a jurisdictional nightmare.