Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bomb Dog Units, Airport Police and LAPD Skirmish at LAX, While Overbilling by LAPD Brings Feds into the Fray

Catherine White worked as a K-9 handler for the U.S. Customs Service for four years.  At night she took classes in law enforcement. After 9/11, she got a job with Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) where she was assigned to a bomb dog named Charlie and became part of the LAX security system. She was occasionally paired with other handlers like Carl Smith, a bomb dog handler with the Los Angeles Police Department. Carl, though part of the LAPD’s office at LAX, occasionally participated in special duty protection details outside of LAX for visiting dignitaries or to sweep large scale community events with his bomb dog. Carl mentioned his salary to Catherine once, which was substantially higher than hers.

Catherine complained to her LAWAPD commander, Matthew Black, about the salary differential, given that she was doing substantially the same work as her counterparts in the LAPD bomb dog unit at LAX.  She also told her union representative.  Both her supervisor and her union rep were familiar with this issue. Captain Black had recently discovered that the LAPD bomb dog unit was engaging in patrols along the perimeter fence of the airport after the LAPD received intelligence that a terrorist group might attempt to enter the airport grounds through the fence.  Neither the LAWAPD nor anyone in the LAWA executive group was informed of the LAPD operation in advance.  At a meeting held with regard to LAWA’s complaint to the mayor of Los Angeles and the LAPD Chief, the head of the LAPD bomb dog unit conspicuously refused to shake hands with Matthew Black. Others who were present said it was Black who had refused to shake hands. 

Over the next few years, additional incidents involving LAPD deployments at LAX occurred several times a year and at least once led to a shoving match. Catherine began trying to avoid working with Carl and with other LAPD handlers and requested a change of assignment.   

This is an attempt to imagine an individual handler's perspective, though some of the details are taken from an employment dispute at LAX discussed in a prior blog.  Friction at an individual level soon moved up through administrative ranks and became well known across the airport and LA government generally. In addition to supervisors in various chains of command at LAWA and in Los Angeles city government, unions got involved, and officials and unions got various politicians to make legislative proposals and initiate studies and investigations.  Despite a series of proposed solutions, including three consecutive agreements regarding responsibilities and operations signed by both LAWA and LAPD officials, and attempts to bring the units together for softball and other social interactions where tension was supposed to be defused, the skirmishing continued and may have gotten worse. 

In 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration looked at the problem and largely exonerated the LAPD of an overbilling claim, but now the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation has reached a nearly opposite conclusion and determined that the FAA’s supervision of LAPD reimbursable expenditures has been inadequate.  

Inspector General and Federal Aviation Administration Disagree on LAPD Overbilling Claims

The audit report of the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General released in April 2014 states that the Los Angeles Police Department, from July 2007 to June 2012, may have overbilled the Federal Aviation Administration as much as $8 million for services that were not related to LAPD’s responsibilities at LAX.  Almost $2 million of that overbilling came from the airport canine unit of the LAPD.   

In December 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration began an investigation regarding similar suspicions about the LAPD but concluded in July 2012 that, aside from a billing error relating to the use of the LAPD’s bomb squad to respond to a call away from LAX, there had been no serious infraction of federal protocols on what the FAA could be billed for. 

The overbilling that was uncovered by the DOT Inspector General seems to have stopped more or less when the FAA concluded its investigation in mid-2012, suggesting that the FAA's investigation may have led LAPD officials to be more careful about their recordkeeping at that point. Why the FAA’s investigation did not uncover the overbilling later found by the Inspector General, or at least the substantial lack of documentation of LAPD expenses billed for, is unclear.  The authors of this blog have requested a copy of the report of the FAA investigation, which was not publicly available on any website of the agencies involved, and only alluded to in news reports, but we have yet to receive a copy and are not particularly hopeful of obtaining it.  A report commissioned by the President of the Los Angeles County Homeland Security Advisory Council from the UCLA Department of Public Policy noted that a number of documents relating to security at LAX could not be obtained after being declared too sensitive for public release, which may be what we are encountering here.  If we ultimately get the document, we will revise this blog as needed and acknowledge any errors we have made that result from not initially having it. 

The title of the Inspector General’s audit report indicates that the FAA shares blame for the revenue diversion:  FAA Oversight Is Inadequate to Ensure Proper Use of Los Angeles International Airport Revenue for Police Services and Maximization of Resources (AV-2014-035, April 8, 2014).  Thus, there are two problems: the diversion of funds by the LAPD, and the FAA’s failure to assure that reimbursements sought for LAPD work were justified under federal regulations.  Whether FAA investigators followed Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards, as did the Inspector General, cannot be determined without a copy of the FAA’s findings.  Some level of sloppiness would be a charitable explanation.  A less charitable explanation would be that the FAA did not want to advertise its own incompetence in the management of taxpayer dollars and mistakenly assumed that the evidence raising such an issue would not be of sufficient interest to anyone else to investigate. 

LAX may not be the only airport billing the FAA for off-airport activities of state or local police authorities.  An April 9 letter to Congress accompanying the audit report expresses the Inspector General’s concern with “revenue diversion at the nation’s airports,” suggesting that other facilities may be under suspicion. This could, of course, indicate a wider pattern and practice inside the FAA as well.  

FAA Reimbursement of Local Authorities

Under the Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982 (49 U.S.C. 47107(b)) and the FAA’s Airport Revenue Use Policy, Airport Revenue may be used for “capital or operating costs of the airport, the local airport system, or other local facilities owned or operated by the airport owner or operator and directly and substantially related to the air transportation of passengers or property. Such costs may include reimbursements to a state or local agency for the costs of services actually received and documented….” Airport revenue is defined quite broadly to include revenue coming from the operation of the airport, from granting rights to conduct activities on the airport property, from the sale of airport real property, etc.  The idea of restricting the use of airport revenue at federally-assisted airports is to make them as self-sufficient as possible, thereby limiting the federal financing required.  Federal rules state that “[r]evenue diversion is the use of airport revenue for purposes other than the capital or operating costs of the airport, the local airport system, or other local facilities owned or operated by the airport owner or operator and directly and substantially related to the air transportation of passengers or property.” 

Los Angeles International Airport Showing Police Facilities
Reimbursable operating costs of a local agency do not include off-airport work of a local police department that divides its responsibilities between the airport and the surrounding community.  Here’s where the dogs come in.  The Inspector General’s report states that in “2012, LAWA identified that the City incorrectly charged LAWA approximately $1.7 million, including statutory interest, for off-airport responses by the City’s Bomb K-9 unit.”  The IG’s April 9 letter to Congressmen elaborates that the LAPD Bomb Squad K-9 teams were “deployed off-airport for events such as dignitary protection details, major public events susceptible to terrorism, and reports of a potential explosive device.” 

The map shows the location of the LAPD K-9 unit which, being on the edge of the airport grounds, allows for easy off-airport deployment.  The letter to Congress also puts the exact amount of the Bomb Squad K-9 Unit’s charges for non-airport assignments at $1,734,060, including statutory interest. 

Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association vs. LAPD  

Both the 2012 FAA investigation and the 2014 audit by the DOT Inspector General were in part initiated by complaints of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association (LAAPOA), a union that represents the airport police force, the Los Angeles World Airport Police Department (LAWAPD).  LAWAPD, which had 450 officers in 2011, is entirely separate from, and often at odds with, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). LAAPOA has been concerned that its members are paid less than LAPD officers doing equivalent jobs, that LAPD officers regard the LAWAPD as not being a real police department with real police but rather a collection of glorified security guards, that LAPD units undertake operations without consulting or coordinating with LAWAPD units, and that the security of the airport is compromised by the lack of effective coordination between the units. 

LAPD officials agree with the risks coming from the lack of coordination, but say that the LAWAPD shares the blame.   In a 2006 posting on the LAPD website, then Los Angeles Police Department Chief William J. Bratton acknowledged the responsibilities of the LAPD and LAWAPD at LAX were often overlapping and misunderstood, but insisted that any discussion of a turf war between the agencies was purely a creation of the press. In any case, the matter was going to be solved by a new Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between LAPD and LAWAPD.  The 2006 MOA was a revision of a 1988 MOA that had proved inadequate in clarifying responsibilities.  Subsequent events have demonstrated that the 2006 MOA was also unable to resolve the friction, so on March 24, 2013, a new MOA was signed, as will be described below. 

Los Angeles Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel

Concerns about security at LAX reached such a level that LA Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa convened a “Blue Ribbon Panel” chaired by a federal judge, Lourdes G. Baird, and a retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, Judith C. Chirlin.  The Panel submitted its report on LAX security in June 2011, finding that LAX “remains a (redacted) target for terrorists.”  The report contains 119 redactions, so it cannot be certain that all conclusions relevant for this blog are publicly available, though some of the redactions are of single words or phrases and seem to reflect a rather bureaucratic belief that anything that smells bad should be excised.  The Panel states the scope of the disaster that could arise were LAX compromised: 

“LAX is a (redacted) target for terrorists and encompasses over 3,425 acres with multiple access points and a vast perimeter. It has over 48,000 personnel who work at the airport, and over 59 million passengers traveled through LAX last year. In addition, there are numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies with both overlapping jurisdictions and distinct responsibilities for security at the airport.”

What is the missing adjective before “target”? Prime? Ideal?  Appropriate would be too mild to be worth taking out.  Inevitable would be too literary for a group of judges and officials.  In any case, anyone who is a fan of NCIS-Los Angeles regularly sees the City saved from disasters far more extensive than could be imagined by the redactors of this document. 

Of particular concern to the Panel was the “historical tension between the LAWAPD and LAPD” which “impedes their willingness to share information and coordinate their counterterrorism efforts.  The lack of close planning and coordination between LAWAPD and LAPD increases the risk that critical information may not be disseminated to each other in a timely fashion.”  Yet the Panel disagreed with a June 8, 2010 letter it quoted from the LAAPOA and the Service Employees International Union to the Chief of LAWAPD stating that LAX “is more vulnerable to a terrorist attack than at any time since 9/ll.” The Panel was critical of the LAAPOA for not keeping its security concerns internal but instead issuing “press releases publicly setting forth their concerns about airport security.”  Some of those press releases were, according to the Panel, inaccurate:

“Following the March 2, 2011 shooting of U.S. military personnel in Germany, the airport police union issued a press release erroneously claiming that the LAWAPD had ‘stepped up security’ and thereby gave the misleading impression that there was a credible threat to Los Angeles. More recently, the airport police union issued a press release erroneously indicating that LAWAPD was on ‘heightened alert’ following the death of Osama bin Laden.”

The Panel accused the union leadership of exacerbating tensions between LAWAPD and LAPD officers in a manner it deemed unnecessary and unprofessional and said the union was “advocating the complete elimination of the LAPD’s presence at the airport, even though this is very unlikely to occur.”   

There was specific mention of the canine units of the separate police forces:  “LAWAPD and LAPD also have officers assigned to the joint explosive detection canine unit, which has more canine teams than any other airport in the nation.”  “Joint” may be overstating the relationship, as the Panel recognized that the units were still separate, that “both LAWAPD and LAPD have canine units that patrol the airport,” and that these separate units “coordinate their daily canine deployments.”  A footnote elaborated:

“When two officers and their canines are deployed together, one of the teams may be from LAPD and the other team may be from LAWAPD. The departments are in the process of updating their standard operating procedures to address the minimum deployment levels for the airport based upon viewing the LAPD and LAWAPD as one unit. In reviewing the canine teams, we did note that the canine facility at the airport is inadequate to accommodate the current number of canines deployed at the airport.”

Although the report was issued prior to the beginning of the FAA’s investigation into the claims of the LAAPOA that LAPD was improperly receiving reimbursement from the FAA for off-airport work, the Panel seems to have known of the issue as it alludes to concern “about diverting police resources away from LAX….” There is no elaboration, however, so it is not certain if this concern might relate to bomb dog units or other units in the LAPD. 

Referring to the 2006 MOA between the LAWAPD and the LAPD, about which Chief Bratton had expressed such optimism five years earlier, the Panel states: 

“Another problem is that the MOA between the departments is often interpreted differently by both departments, is not always followed in practice, and does not necessarily reflect the current allocation and utilization of police resources at LAX. Each department interprets the MOA to its own perceived advantage, and in a manner that is frequently inconsistent to how the other department interprets the MOA. The result is that both departments are engaged in what could be considered ‘mission creep,’ in that they have expanded their duties or seek to expand their duties into the area that is the responsibility of the other department.”

The Panel’s recommended solutions are based around improved coordination between the various law enforcement groups operating at the airport, with more exact boundaries between their authority and responsibilities. 

UCLA Study
A 2012 study by the UCLA Department of Public Policy, The Optimal Law Enforcement Structure for Los Angeles International Airport, found that the dual law enforcement structure at LAX was characterized by “cross-agency tension” and the UCLA analysts sought to determine what the optimal structure would be. This study was completed before the FAA began investigating the LAAPOA complaint regarding overbilling by the LAPD, but the authors note that revenue from the airport “cannot be siphoned off to plug gaps in the city’s budget.”  Also, they refer to “a perception that the City orders LAPD officers to LAX without LAWA’s approval and then expects the agency to reimburse it.” 

The possible solutions considered by the analysts to resolve the tension between the different departments were (1) eliminating either the LAPD substation, including the LAPD bomb-sniffing dogs and giving all responsibilities to the Los Angeles World Airport Police Department (LAWAPD), (2) letting LAPD take over all law enforcement responsibilities at the airport, (3) retaining the current system, or (4) keeping both departments but giving LAWAPD greater control.  The report indicates that an attempted merger of the two departments in 2005 “keeps the LAWAPD and its union, the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association (LAAPOA) on guard,” and rejects the first two approaches as politically impossible.  Since the current system, by their assessment, is not working, they settle on the fourth possibility, i.e., giving LAWAPD greater control. 

Specifically as to dogs, the study notes that in addition to LAPD and LAWAPD canine units, TSA and Customs and Border Patrol “also have canines on the premises for duties relevant to their expertise.”  Acknowledging that most of the friction with regard to canine units is, however, between LAPD and LAWAPD units, the study concludes:

“Canine services at the airport are jointly provided by LAPD and LAWAPD who share a common kennel. The LAWAPD should assume control and authority over all canine services except for the bomb detection canines reserved for LAPD’s bomb squad unit. These bomb detection canines and dog handlers should all be from LAPD, while all other TSA certified and dual purpose dogs should belong to LAWAPD.”

2013 Memorandum Agreement

The previously mentioned 2013 MOA between Los Angeles World Airports and the LAPD states that LAPD is to provide LAWA annually with a proposed deployment and operations plan, giving LAWA “sufficient time to incorporate the costs associated with law enforcement into its fiscal budget.”  Yet the MOA also accepts that operation needs “are dynamic and are subject to modification as threats, crime problems, and other circumstances change.” If this is expected to remove the sort of blindsiding that the UCLA study refers to as arising from the LAPD making sudden and unannounced deployments to LAX, it is hard to see that such an open-ended protocol will really make a difference. 

The MOA states that LAPD personnel detailed to LAX must keep full and accurate records of any off-airport work, and notify LAWAPD in advance unless LAPD personnel are responding to “help calls, major traffic collisions, or compelling/time sensitive public safety emergencies.”  Specifically as to dogs, the MOA provides:

“The parties acknowledge that TSA policy currently allows law enforcement agencies to use TSA-funded explosive detection canines outside the transportation environment for a maximum of 20% of the time. The parties recognize, however, that FAA regulations do not allow LAWA to reimburse LAPD for the deployment of TSA-funded canines for non-airport related activities and that any off-airport use of canines must be tracked and the costs withheld from the LAPD invoices to LAWA….”

The 20% maximum for off-airport time is a requirement for receiving TSA funds. (See testimony of TSA officials on June 24, 2014.) Whether this MOA will lead to a better relationship between the two police forces, or between their separate canine units, is probably too early to tell, but the authors of this blog prefer, for the time being, to remain skeptical. 

Inspector General’s Report and the Future

Curiously, the recent Inspector General’s report has some praise for the recordkeeping of the Bomb Squad K-9 unit in that at least that unit maintained records of non-airport work, whereas other departments did not:

“[A] LAWA official stated in August 2013 that reporting off-airport time by full time LAPD personnel at LAX, other than the Bomb Squad K-9 unit, will not be necessary because LAWA believes the other full time LAPD personnel rarely engage in non-airport related activities. We requested documentation to support this statement as well as the rationale for the change in the agreed upon actions for record keeping. However, we have not received this documentation to date. By only requiring the Bomb Squad K-9 unit to track off-airport time instead of any LAPD personnel assigned to LAX on a full-time or full-time equivalent basis, LAWA could be paying for police services not related to the airport, which would be a diversion of airport revenue.”

Among departments not keeping records about off-airport work was the Narcotics Division-K-9, so presumably the LAPD would argue that unlike the bomb dog unit, the drug dog unit does not do any (or at least not very much) work outside of the airport boundaries. 

The Inspector General was not the only one worrying about the amount of revenue that was being diverted from LAWA, a financially independent department of the City of Los Angeles.  Three Congressmen sent letters to the IG in 2011 and 2012 with similar concerns.  The LAAPOA has also been instrumental in getting legislation passed to recognize LAWAPD officers as full-fledged police, resulting in a law that came into effect on January 1, 2014.  The legislation was supported by the mayor and police chief (now respectively Eric Garcetti and Charlie Beck).  Whether nominal equality will lead to respect from the LAPD officers at LAX remains to be seen. 


The disputes between the LAPD and LAWAPD have involved individual officers, supervisors, the chiefs of both departments, the mayor, various panels and experts, legislators including Congressmen, the Federal Aviation Administration, and now the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation.  The 2012 findings of the FAA and the 2014 findings of the DOT Inspector General prove that politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.  It is too simplistic to say either that the FAA investigators became tools of the LAPD or that the DOT Inspector General had wool pulled over his eyes by the LAAPOA, but the diverse results of the investigations are themselves a reason for concern and further analysis.  The FAA’s 2012 report should be made public so that it can be fairly compared to the 2014 report of the DOT IG, not only as to its conclusions but also as to the methodology of the investigators, and whether Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards were employed by FAA investigators, as was asserted by the DOT IG.   

If the friction continues, this must be a great concern since both overlaps and gaps between warring or even infrequently skirmishing agencies can lead to failures in security, which when it comes to airports and the threat of terrorism can result in disasters on the greatest scale.  If that potential is found to continue, then the bullet must be bitten and the agencies must be forcibly collapsed so that there is one chain of command and one individual at the top, whose skills will have to include the ability to combine two work forces into a single and effective unit.   

This blog was written by John Ensminger and L.E. Papet. 

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