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Emails Show Months Of Bitter Bickering Between Airport, City Officials

Davie Hinshaw aboard WCNC-TV Airstar
Charlotte Observer

  Last year’s decision to give Charlotte-Mecklenburg police control of the airport’s police led to months of bitter infighting between city officials and the airport – and drew disapproval from the airport’s biggest customer US Airways, emails reviewed by the Observer show.

The loss of the autonomous police force, finalized in December, galled airport officials. Aviation Director Jerry Orr described the switch as a “debacle” in one email. The contentious atmosphere appears to have compromised effectiveness in overall security and resulted in some thefts being inadequately investigated, some emails suggest.

Soon after Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe assumed control of airport police, Orr said in interviews that the airport would benefit from being run by an authority -- free from city control.

In early February, a bill was introduced in the General Assembly that would create a 13-member authority to run Charlotte Douglas, removing it from the city, which has managed it since 1935.

An authority would have complete control of the airport, including the police.

The hundreds of emails between airport officials and police, obtained in a public records request, reveal that both sides have been busy documenting that the other is a poor choice for policing the airport.

Airport officials have compiled complaints about CMPD officers, including allegations of slow response times and photos of groups of officers eating together in the concourse. US Airways, the airport’s biggest tenant, has complained about CMPD and the more than 100 percent increase in the cost for officers.

Emails also show that CMPD officials have complained that their effectiveness is hampered by airport policies that block them from some secured doors and deny them access to security cameras.

The bickering surged last fall as the city considered taking control of the airport police.

Last October, after flying through Charlotte Douglas, a Tennessee woman believed that her engagement ring and wedding band had been stolen from her carry-on luggage.

Brenda Roach emailed an airport police officer, asking for help.

The officer, Steve Brown, wrote back, apologetic that he wouldn’t be able to investigate.

“Due to ‘political’ reasons, Aviation Director Jerry Orr and Assistant Aviation Director Herbert Judon, are not allowing the Airport Police to conduct further criminal investigations of this nature at this time,” Brown wrote. “They have not given any reason for this recent move. I really wish I could tell you why.”

It isn’t clear from the emails why airport officers couldn’t leave the airport in an attempt to recover stolen property. It’s possible they no longer wanted airport police to do work they believed CMPD should handle or would handle in its takeover.

In September, a CMPD captain complained to Orr that preventing airport police from leaving the property could be “construed as obstructing an investigation.”

Monroe told the Observer that after he learned about that decision last fall, CMPD told airport officials to change the policy. He said the airport later “overruled those orders and continued to restrict airport law enforcement from going off-site to continue criminal investigations.”

Orr didn’t respond to Observer questions.

‘High school drama’

The dispute over how and whether to investigate Roach’s missing jewelry is indicative of months of infighting.

In one email, an airport police officer described some of the squabbles as “a sideshow of high school drama.”

After the City Council made the switch, airport officials began complaining about CMPD trying to “backdoor” them to gain access to security cameras, and said that the police under CMPD command were no longer handling important tasks such as traffic control.

At least one airport official believed that the police under CMPD control were slacking off.

In January, an airport spokeswoman surreptitiously photographed five CMPD officers “enjoying a hearty breakfast” in the concourse at 7:30 a.m. and emailed it to other top administrators with the subject, “Couldnt’ (sic) believe my eyes...”

US Airways — the airport’s biggest tenant — was also disturbed. When U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s son was arrested at Charlotte Douglas for alleged underage drinking in January, a CMPD lieutenant told the Observer that 19-year-old William Paul might have been served alcohol on his flight from Kentucky.

US Airways denied that.

“Jerry, My Corporate Communications Director had a lot more work created for her over the weekend by Lt. Hollar’s statement,” Terri Pope, US Airways’ vice president in Charlotte, wrote to Orr. “This is concerning and something that seldom if ever happened in the past with the (airport) police.”

US Airways was also concerned about having to pay more for police.

Police costs at Charlotte Douglas increased from $2.6 million to $5.5 million in fiscal year 2013 as CMPD added staff and existing officers moved to CMPD’s higher pay scales.

The higher police costs are ultimately paid by the airlines through fees.

“A fundamental question that must be answered will be ‘what will be the cost to US?” a US Airways manager wrote to Charlotte’s assistant finance director.

US Airways declined to comment further about the higher police costs.

The airline has said it doesn’t have an opinion whether the airport should be controlled by the city or an authority.

CMPD cites effectiveness

The idea of bringing in CMPD first surfaced after North Mecklenburg High student Delvonte Tisdale breached airport security in 2010 and, investigators believe, climbed into the wheel well of a US Airways flight. His body was found hours later on an approach path to Boston Logan International Airport.

A review of security by the city recommended adding more police officers and transferring them from the airport’s control to CMPD.

Since the takeover, CMPD officials have said their increased crime-fighting focus includes combating car break-ins and thefts by airline contract workers. They also have complained about a lack of airport cooperation.

On Jan. 16, a month after the switch, Maj. Bruce Bellamy sent an email to Judon “to document my frustration and concern with obstacles that we feel are hindering CMPD from providing the best police service at the airport.”

Those issues included CMPD officers being denied access to some secured doors, the inability to monitor the airport’s cameras, and not being able to see older airport incident reports to compare crime trends.

“If there is a valid reason as to why CMPD does not have access to these items I would love to hear them,” Bellamy wrote. “I would still question why you would limit the police from having access to these items when we all stress the importance of creating a safe environment at the airport.”

Judon and Bellamy agreed to work together to try to resolve the problems.

In a memo released last month, CMPD said the total number of incidents reported during its first two months at the airport was 121, including 50 larcenies. During the same period a year earlier — when the airport controlled security — the total number of larcenies reported was 18; two years ago, during the same period, it was 13.

CMPD has said it’s being more aggressive in investigations.

Airport officials say that’s not true.

According to a two-month review of CMPD’s work at the airport in February, Charlotte Douglas officials found these problems:

•  CMPD has added no permanent officers at the airport. According to the memo, the new airport staff are “retiree callbacks” and “other active officers on overtime.” The airport said they are only a “visual deterrent,” and don’t improve policing. The airport also complained that police leadership is rarely at the airport, and that airport officials couldn’t access police reports.

•  The airport doubts the validity of CMPD crime stats. According to the memo, the uptick in crimes is tied to how CMPD reports its work. “CMPD includes routine patrols, checks, escorts, lost property as individual calls/incidents,” the memo said. “This difference...depicts a skewed differential in airport crime statistics.”

•  CMPD officers “lack qualifications and training” to drive on the airfield, according to the memo. It also said the officers don’t have a “situational awareness of the dynamics of airport policing.”

Monroe told the Observer that airport security has improved.

“Since CMPD assumed responsibility for airport law enforcement on December 15, 2012, we have made significant improvements to address the previously identified security concerns and we will continue to do so,” said Monroe in a statement.

Roach, the woman who believes her rings were stolen, said she’s still upset the airport police couldn’t help get her rings back last year. “All I wanted was for them to investigate, but that never happened,” she said.