Leadership Failures Call L.A. Airport Chief’s Appointment Into Question
By Marshall McClain
When Patrick Gannon became Chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police Department in November 2012, he said he had applied for the position because he thought it would be an “interesting challenge.”
The Los Angeles Airport Peace Officer’s Association was initially hopeful that Chief Gannon would follow through on his stated commitment to keep the force strong and self-sufficient, but two years into the job, it is clear that he has failed to rise to the “interesting challenge” at hand.
With morale down, personnel complaints up, funds mismanaged, urgently needed security improvements left undone and staffing woefully inadequate, the L.A. Airport Police Department desperately needs a leader who understands the unique nature of airport law enforcement and is dedicated to fostering the Department’s autonomy — not one who maintains unnecessary dependence on the LAPD and denies that there are problems that need to be addressed.
A few months before Chief Gannon’s appointment, a UCLA Department of Public Policy study commissioned by the Homeland Security Advisory Council determined that the optimal law enforcement structure for LAX would be to grant Airport Police greater control and authority over all aspects of daily policing at the airport, reducing the LAPD’s overlapping and redundant role.
When it came time to hire a police chief, however, instead of conducting a nationwide search for a candidate experienced in aviation law enforcement or other specialized policing, airport officials chose a 34-year veteran of the LAPD. Not surprisingly, this has hamstrung the progress toward Airport Police independence.
The continuing rise in passenger traffic at LAX and lavish airport expansion call for increased police staffing to address the growing security demands. But soon after his arrival, Gannon began allowing staffing to decrease, thereby making airport police more dependent on LAPD resources to fill in personnel gaps.
Despite LAX crime rates jumping 10% in his first year on the job, outpacing growth in passenger volume, Gannon was still promoted to Deputy Executive Director of Law Enforcement and Security Services in addition to Police Chief, rather than conducting a nationwide search to fill the vacant position. Even after the November 1, 2013, shooting exposed the dangers of the split-policing model and the critical need for more training, heightened deployment and other security measures, the number of sworn Airport Police Officers kept steadily declining, reaching its lowest level since 2008. Yet the Chief continues to publicly maintain that the force size is sufficient, even in the face of ample evidence that it is not.
The November 1 shooting highlighted Gannon’s failure to prepare the Department for major incidents on a supervisory level. The front-line officers did an outstanding job that day, but post-incident reviews faulted management’s support and coordination. Back in 2011, the commissioned report of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Airport Security gave a mandate to improve the L.A. Airport Police Department’s management’s ability to appropriately to handle and supervise front-line officers, but Gannon didn’t shoulder this task when he took command. Instead, there have been more personnel complaints, grievances, unfair labor practices and even lawsuits during his two-year tenure than in any time previously.
The Chief should be working to improve procedures and prepare supervisors to handle situations as they arise, yet since his arrival he has deferred more command and control responsibilities to LAPD, keeping the Airport Police reliant on an outside entity to respond to situations at the airport and essentially facilitating the Los Angeles World Airport’s illegal diversion of federal aviation funds to City coffers.
In April, a U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General audit found diversion of airport policing funds and other citations at LAX in the amount of $49 million, as well as numerous irregularities relating to an additional $7.9 million in undocumented policing monies, with the most egregious diversionary tactics focused on contracted LAPD officers assigned to LAX being paid by Los Angeles World Airport for off-airport work. By maintaining L.A. Airport Police Department’s dependence on LAPD, Gannon enables the continued siphoning of funds that should be spent on airport operations and public safety, but instead are lining the City’s pockets.
Chief Gannon’s consistent failure to adequately represent airport police has stunted the Department’s growth and development. Both experts and voters have already spoken in support of leaving airport policing to a dedicated agency, and the Airport Police Department’s autonomy is enshrined in the City Charter. No other major city in the nation with its own airport police force has the municipal police patrolling airports, nor does anyone see a need for the LAPD at the Port of Los Angeles — so why at LAX? With AB 109 and Proposition 47 threatening public safety throughout the state, and with crime rates increasing, it is even more important now than ever that all City resources be returned to protecting and serving the citizens of Los Angeles. It just makes sense that Airport Police should be a fully self-sufficient police force, with LAPD called upon only in emergency situations to augment the force, not as a daily deployment.
To make this happen, however, the Airport Police Department needs leadership without conflicting ties to the City. A search should be conducted for a qualified replacement who will bring fresh ideas about the best law enforcement practices that will work for the airport police, rather than what works for LAPD. The net should be cast nationwide, to rule out any local bias or prejudice, and it should focus on candidates with a specialized policing background. Airport policing is different in many ways from municipal law enforcement and Los Angeles World Airport is a dynamic regional environment where a chief of police needs to be well-versed in working with multiple agencies at the federal, state and local levels — perhaps a sheriff who has experience working with many entities throughout the county would be better suited to the task.
Only a leader who is truly committed to tackling the challenge of building the Airport Police Department into a strong and independent agency can help the Department surmount its many problems and have a real impact on bolstering public safety at Los Angeles airports.
Marshall McClain is the president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officer’s Association and a 17-year law enforcement veteran. He is currently a Senior Lead Officer with the Los Angeles Airport Police Department.