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Should TSA Agents Have Broader Law Enforcement Powers?


Airports around the country will hold a moment of silence this morning to honor Gerardo Hernandez. He was the TSA officer killed a week ago today at Los Angeles International Airport. That shooting is renewing debate over airport security and the role of the TSA. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Security at major airports is a web of moving parts, and a tangle of bureaucracies and jurisdictions.


SIEGLER: Take LAX, one of the busiest airports in the world. Before you step into Terminal Three where last week's shooting occurred, chances are you've already seen cops.



SIEGLER: This airport has its own police force. Four hundred or so officers patrol the streets outside the terminal, the baggage claims and ticket counters. Then, there are the TSA check points.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Report all suspicious items or activity immediately to airport personnel.

SIEGLER: On an average day, a thousand TSA officers are screening passengers and luggage. And then you have the 65 airlines here. They employ their own security guards around the gate areas. When there's a security breach like last Friday, the city police and the FBI also respond here in force. As is common in major incidents, the praise of that response came quickly. This is Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti just a few hours after Friday's shooting.


MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: I've personally witnessed, as mayor of this city, the seamlessness between agencies, between different levels of government.

SIEGLER: Still, airport officials are promising a full review. So are TSA officials. There's already some talk about how that web of jurisdictions might be changed. The union representing TSA screeners has called for creating a special class of armed agents with arrest powers. That doesn't go over so well with the airport police officers.

MARSHALL MCCLAIN: That is not the mission of the TSA.

SIEGLER: Marshall McClain is president of the L.A. Airport Peace Officers Association.

MCCLAIN: So that's why we say mission creep, and we saw all these things coming years ago.

SIEGLER: Mission creep is how McClain describes the evolution of the TSA. He says it's drifting more and more toward law enforcement. And as a national agency, that's hard to do.

MCCLAIN: For example, the state of California's penal code is going to be dramatically different from New York. So to say, OK, you're now going to give TSA arrest authority, where is that authority coming from when the air marshals don't even have the ability to enforce state and local laws?

SIEGLER: Tensions and turf battles between local law enforcement in charge of the airport itself and the TSA in charge of passenger and baggage screening are nothing new. This has been going on since the agency was created in the weeks after 9/11.

JEFF PRICE: Some of the model we have in place is, it worked at the time.

SIEGLER: Jeff Price is a professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver, and was deputy for security at that city's airport.

PRICE: There was a real feeling initially in 2001 and 2002 that TSA was bringing all these people in and they were the new sheriff in town, and they were going to fix security, whereas those of us that were in the industry prior to 9/11 had just failed, and that really created a lot of bad blood early on.

SIEGLER: In fact, Price thinks the country should now consider going back to private contractors doing the passenger screening, not government employees. Still, he and other experts caution against using the LAX incident as a reason for big changes nationally. After all, it was just one incident. Brian Jenkins at the RAND Corporation points that our airport security systems were designed to protect air travel. And guarding against a mass shooting in a crowded public place like an airport, is tough.

BRIAN JENKINS: Not only is it very difficult to secure those areas, but attempting to do so, which would require a significant expenditure and be extremely disruptive, gives us very little net security benefit.

SIEGLER: LAPD chief Charlie Beck said as much this week, adding the public isn't ready for military style security at airports. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.