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Security Shift Feeds Tension Between City/Airport

Nicola since 1972

The current debate over creating a regional authority to oversee the Charlotte airport has made for frosty relations between city officials, who oppose the move,  and Aviation Director Jerry Orr, who is for it.

But internal emails show things have been tense for some time. WFAE's Julie Rose has gone through some 400 pages of emails and documents related to the city manager's decision last year to put CMPD in charge of airport security. She spoke with Morning Edition Host Duncan McFadyen:

MCFADYEN: How was security (at the airport) being handled before that decision?

ROSE: The airport had its own police force of about 57 officers and a captain on loan from CMPD to oversee things. When CMPD took over airport security completely in mid-December, a lot of those original airport officers stayed on, but now they're CMPD employees.

CMPD's pay and benefits are a bit higher and its officers are required to have slightly different equipment, so that adds about $800,000 to the cost of airport security for the remainder of the fiscal year which ends in June.  That alone, does not sit well with aviation director Jerry Orr. We've reported recently on how he prides himself on keeping costs down. In one emailhe calls the police security transition a "debacle."

MCFADYEN: Then why did (Orr) have CMPD take over security in the first place?

ROSE: He didn't. It was former city manager Curt Walton who made the decision last year. It seemed to come out of the security breach that happened in late 2010 when a young man – Delvonte Tisdale, you maybe recognize that name? – apparently snuck into a wheel well of a plane at the Charlotte airport and was found dead in Boston, beneath the plane's flight path.  

TSA blamed the airport, the airport blamed TSA. CMPD did an investigation and determined airport security was lacking, so city manager decided it was time to have CMPD take over.

MCFADYEN: How common is it for airport security to be handled by a local police department?

ROSE: That's why I called Rich Roth to find out. He's an airport security expert with a group in Maryland called CTI Consulting. He told me about half of airports the size of Charlotte have their own security force and the other half outsource it to local police.

MCFADYEN: Well if this is such a common arrangement, why do the internal emails show such tension – and even dysfunction in some cases?

ROSE: Aside from the fact that this is a change that was basically forced on the airport by the city, there is a fundamental difference you can see in these documents between policing the streets and policing an airport. So, Rich Roth says one of the biggest problems when local police take over airport security is customer service.

ROTH: "They're used to, when they stop somebody on the street out there, they're normally at an area where somebody's doing something bad. At an airport in most cases it's normally somebody that's confused. They didn't know they couldn't park there. They didn't know they couldn't get out of their car."

ROSE: The airport spends a lot of time and energy making sure passengers have a good experience – that they're welcomed to the city, that the airlines are happy doing business in Charlotte. Airport police are expected to be a part of that. But "street cops" – if you will - who come over to the airport tend to be a little more brusque.

You see complaints along those lines in the emails – customers, airport volunteers and even US Airways – the airport's largest customer – all complaining about the heavy-handedness of CMPD officers.

And so here's just another example I thought was really interesting from these documents: The airport gets a lot of lost items reported – as you can imagine – and it actually has a coordinator who tracks down the passengers often when they're coming back on their return transfer and is able to get those items back in the passenger's hands. Now CMPD has taken over and lost and found items are being taken Uptown to police headquarters where there's virtually no chance a passenger coming back through Charlotte will be able to be reunited with their property.

MCFADYEN: So the airport feels like customer service is suffering with CMPD in charge of security. But what about security itself? Is CMPD doing a good job there?

ROSE: CMPD says they have made significant improvements. They have added a couple of sergeants and a lieutenant to oversee things, boosted patrols along the airport perimeter and stationed uniformed officers inside to be a visual deterrent to crime.

Now the airport says response times are slower because CMPD is routing all calls for service through the city's 911 operation, rather than having officers dispatched by an airport operator. CMPD insists the 911 system is a more appropriate and secure approach.

But there's one thing CMPD is resisting doing that has airport officials really upset.  It sounds like kind of a small thing, but Rich Roth, the airport security expert says it's actually a big deal: Responding to door alarms.

ROTH: "Police officers are not real big on answering to alarms."

ROSE: You've been to an airport. You know there are doors all over the place marked "do not enter" right? Roth says any time one of those doors is opened without authorization – even if it's a mistake – airport police have to respond to it and they have to report the results to TSA.  

Many times in the emails Charlotte airport officials complain about CMPD just not responding to the alarms – or submitting the necessary reports to TSA. Roth says he totally gets that a city police department would have little patience for federal regulations like that.

ROTH:  "Unfortunately when you take the contract to work at the airport, that's part of the contract."

MCFADYEN: Could CMPD get in trouble for not responding to all door alarms, then?   

ROSE: It's the airport that's on the hook. CMPD is just the contractor the airport has hired to handle security. If things aren't done properly, the airport has to answer to TSA and could end up getting fined or even investigated. So the airport has started having its own operations people respond to door alarms. That has the airport feeling like they're paying more to CMPD to handle security and actually getting less in return.  

Aviation Director Jerry Orr is, frankly, used to having his contractors be very responsive to his demands. CMPD is a different animal. Over and over again you see airport staff asking for things from CMPD – a police report from an incident that happened at the airport, for example – and being basically ignored.

Even the official agreement outlining roles and expectations for CMPD at the airport – Orr signed it at the end of December, delivered it to the police chief – who has yet to sign it.

MCFADYEN: So there may be some tension here, but what's the bottom line? Is the airport more or less safe since CMPD took over?

ROSE:  Well, aviation security expert Rich Roth says the key to airport security is having officers who know the rules and regulations; know the airport's layout; know how to identify airport-specific crimes like baggage theft rings; and Roth says takes training, which CMPD has not offered to the additional officers it has assigned to the airport.

So what I think we can say –based on the documents that have been released - is that three months into this transition at the Charlotte Airport we're not yet to the ideal airport security scenario.

(Here is an airport assessment of the security transition after the first 60-days.)