O’Hare Officers Sue Chicago to Get Policing Powers Back

By Jaclyn Diaz

Law enforcement officers at Chicago’s two major airports say their labor contract is being violated by a plan that involves calling them “security officers” instead of “police.”

Service Employees International Union Local 73 filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court July 20 to reinstate the policing powers of the 230 aviation security officers who work at O’Hare and Midway International airports ( SEIU v. City of Chicago , Ill. Cir. Ct., No. 2017-CH-09867, complaint 7/20/17 ).

The Chicago Department of Aviation announced July 12 that aviation security officers will be stripped of the right to call themselves police and will be restricted in some duties. The changes remove the officers’ power to make arrests and write traffic tickets, the complaint said.

The decision was part of a review of the Aviation Security Division undertaken after an April 9 incident on United Airlines Flight 3411 at O’Hare.  Officers from the division dragged Dr. David Dao off a flight that was overbooked. He was injured in the process, and the confrontation made national headlines. Dao settled a lawsuit against United for an undisclosed sum.

The changes create a safer atmosphere for travelers at the airports, the Department of Aviation said. But the union isn’t buying it. The response time to calls from the airports will be longer, putting passengers and workers at risk, Jeff Howard, a representative with Local 73, told Bloomberg BNA July 21.

A representative said the aviation department had no comment on the lawsuit.

Union: Changes Take Away Policing Ability

The city’s job description for aviation security officers, from 2011, says their role is “patrolling the airport grounds, terminals and facilities to provide a law enforcement presence, deter criminal activity, prevent unauthorized airport access, enforce security rules, and perform related duties as required,” according to an exhibit filed with the complaint.

The officers’ duties traditionally consisted of issuing tickets for traffic violations on the airfield and airport roads, arresting people as needed, executing searches, and responding to disturbances occurring on airport grounds, among other responsibilities. Per that job description, one of the minimum qualifications to be an officer is to be certified by the state of Illinois as a Law Enforcement Officer.

The Dao incident “was a one off,” Howard said. In that situation, there were no set policies in place to deal with something that was a customer service issue, he said.

The new protocol “fundamentally changes how officers work at the airport,” he said. Before the United matter, the security officers had been considered a police presence for decades with no problems.

The changes were made without negotiating with SEIU Local 73 and violate the union’s collective bargaining agreement, the complaint said. The union is asking the judge stop the city from instituting these changes. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, in addition to the lawsuit.

CDA: Security Officers Are Not Special Police

After the Dao scandal, the department was committed to undergoing a thorough review of what took place, an aviation department representative told Bloomberg BNA. The department chose to move forward on several actions to clarify the roles of the officers at O’Hare and Midway after determining that their responsibilities had become murky over the years.

“While current airport management and City officials have consistently reiterated that the ASOs are not police, older written procedures and past memos referring to ASOs as special police, as well as legacy elements of the ASO training program, have caused confusion in this area,” the department’s July 12 report said of the aviation security officers.

The changes, as outlined by the Department of Aviation, would scrub the word “police” from all uniforms and vehicles the officers use. Since April 20, only Chicago police officers can respond to disturbances on planes, the CDA’s report said.

More Work for Chicago Police

The change in roles for aviation security officers appears to make more work for Chicago police officers.

Waiting for Chicago police officers, who are usually stationed outside of the security checkpoints of the airport, could take longer than it would take if a security officer is on hand to respond, Howard said.

Relying on Chicago police to man the airports also means the department will have to beef up its presence at the airports. The Department of Aviation is mistaken if it thinks officers outside of the security gates at the airports will respond in a timely fashion, he said.

“As in any unit where there’s an increase in work there should be an increase in manpower,” Martin Pride, a representative with the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7, told Bloomberg BNA.

The Department of Aviation is also working with Chicago police to review the security training and policies still in place. Any changes to the policies and procedures will be included in an updated manual, it said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jDiaz@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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