LAX police officers praise new law giving them expanded powers, but pay ‘disparity’ still a concern

Kevin Aksacki who just arrived from Brazil makes a phone call next to a Police vehicle parked curbside at Los Angeles International Airport amid a heightened security alert on April 16, 2013.
Kevin Aksacki who just arrived from Brazil makes a phone call next to a Police vehicle parked curbside at Los Angeles International Airport amid a heightened security alert on April 16, 2013.

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Officers hailed Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of a bill that expands the power of the Los Angeles Airport Police, which patrols LAX and two other airports. The measure changes officers’ status under state law to be equivalent to that of other municipal departments, such as the Los Angeles Police Department.

Brown signed AB 128 into law on Sunday.  

"We’re ecstatic,” said Marshall McClain, President of Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association (LAAPOA), which represents more than 425 men and women at the airports. “It’s something that’s been fought over a 10-year period.” 

L.A. Airport Police – the fourth largest department in Los Angeles County – is its own agency separate from LAPD. Besides LAX,  it also patrols L.A./Ontario International Airport and Van Nuys Airport.

More than 600 officers make up the force. Including other civilian personnel and some security staff, there are about 1,100 employees in the department. McClain believes those who are not officers will not be affected by the upgrade.

Under the existing law, they lack the legal authority to remove vehicles, seize weapons or drugs, or carry out other routine tasks that some say is necessary for the safe operation of a major airport. In those cases, the airport officers may have to call LAPD for assistance.

The new law will allow airport officers to perform duties they aren't sanctioned to carry out under the current law, such as those listed above.

“If a vehicle was unsafe driving on the road, we would have to literally notify LAPD to come and say that the vehicle isn’t safe,” said McClain. “That often time would take 40, 45 minutes, which was kind of ridiculous.”  

After the upgrade takes effect, travelers will likely continue to see no differences in security operations at the airports. McClain said that's because airport police perform similar duties to the LAPD.

“The major difference is LAPD doesn’t have patches on their uniforms,” McClain said. “Other than that, you really wouldn't see too much difference if they were standing 15, 20 feet away from you.”

The upgrade won't mean taxpayers will feel any pinch either, because LAX is a proprietary agency.  

“We are city employees, but our retirement, our pay, everything is separate,” McClain said. “The airport cuts a check to the City of Los Angeles and the City of Los Angeles turns around and pays us.”

Leaders say the measure may also help free up peace officers at LAX to move back onto the streets. They also hope the upgrade will help put the salaries of airport officers on par with that of LAPD officers.

McClain said the L.A. City Council first looked into the idea of a status change a decade ago when officials conducted a feasibility study. They examined the training and responsibilities of airport officers, but the action hit plenty of snags.

For example, McClain said William Bratton, who served as LAPD Chief between 2002 and 2009, fought against the upgrade because he wanted to merge the departments.

AB 128, introduced by Assembly Member Steven Bradford – whose 62nd district includes LAX– reclassifies those airport officers under section 830.1, the same as any other municipal department.

“The Governor's signature on this important piece of legislation will now provide Los Angeles Airport Police Officers with the tools necessary to keep our airports safe and secure,” Patrick Gannon, Chief of the airport police officers, said in a statement. “The traveling public and the residents of Los Angeles deserve no less."

Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck have endorsed the bill.

“It is important that the law enforcement agency responsible for protecting one of the world’s busiest airports — and one of the nation’s top terrorist targets — be afforded comprehensive police powers in the State of California,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “I'm pleased that Los Angeles International Airport will no longer be the only major airport in California that is policed by an agency whose officers do not have 830.1 status.”

The status upgrade goes into effect Jan 1, 2014.