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Fight Erupts Over Whether Aviation Security Officers Should Be Police

 Dozens of Aviation Security Officers asked aldermen to roll back a plan to strip them of the authority to call themselves police.
Dozens of Aviation Security Officers asked aldermen to roll back a plan to strip them of the authority to call themselves police.
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DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

CITY HALL — The simmering fight over whether Aviation Security Officers should be stripped of the right to call themselves police boiled over Monday as several members of the City Council's Aviation Committee objected to Commissioner Ginger Evans' plan to rebrand the force.

Under aggressive questioning from Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and other aldermen, Evans said the fracas that erupted April 9 after officers dragged a Louisville doctor off a United Airlines flight seriously injuring him showed the need to clarify the official duties of Aviation Security Officers.

"There are very serious legal risks for the city to call people police that are not police," Evans said, adding that most large, international airports have two complimentary law enforcement agencies — one sworn, armed force and another charged with monitoring entrances and exits to the airport. "Both have enormous value."

However, several aldermen said Evans' plan — which the commissioner said she ordered four days after Dr. David Dao's nose was broken, two of his front teeth were lost, and he suffered a concussion during the incident — would leave passengers at O'Hare and Midway airports at risk.

"It is a very bad idea to take police off of their badges," said Ald. Nicolas Sposato (38th.) "People respect officers much more than they do security guards."

Evans told aldermen that the word "police" will be removed from aviation security officers' uniforms within in five months — and pledged to consult with the unions that represent the 292 aviation security officers who cost the city $19 million annually.

"We are going to change the word police," Evans said. "We can not have that lack of clarity."

John Jimmerson, who has been an Aviation Security Officer for 30 years, told the committee that Evans' move left him feeling "disrespected and humiliated." Dozens of officers attended the committee meeting.

"We are sworn officers," Jimmerson said. "I love this job, but it has been tarnished."

Matt Brandon, who represents several dozen Aviation Security sergeants, said he believed Evans was laying the ground work to fire the existing officers and replace them with "security guards that are paid $15 an hour."

The Service Employee International Union, which represents the officers, filed an objection to the removal of the term police from their vehicles and uniforms. That objection is pending before state labor officials.

Evans approved of the committee's plan to ban Aviation Security Officers from boarding a plane unless there was an "immediate threat."

That matches the Aviation Department's current policy and will help prevent another "completely unacceptable" incident like the one involving Dao from occurring again, Evans said.

The full council will consider the measure Wednesday.

Three Aviation security officers have been suspended with pay in connection with their role in this incident. Inspector General Joseph Ferguson is conducting an "expedited disciplinary review," Evans said.

Burke also pointedly questioned Evans about the hiring of Jeffrey Redding, whom Evans tapped to lead the Aviation Security Officers. Evans told Burje she fired Redding from his $118,020-a-year position April 27 for failing to reveal important information during the hiring process.

The Tribune reported April 21 that Redding was fired by the Illinois Tollway after officials received complaints that he sought sex and money in exchange for work-related favors.

Burke called Redding a "sexual predator" and pressed Evans on whether she had checked his references before hiring him. Evans said she had obtained a copy of Redding's personnel record from tollway officials and obtained references.

Several aldermen were also critical of Evans' announcement that she planned to hire the Israeli Airport Authority — a firm owned by the Israeli government — to conduct an assessment of security at O'Hare and Midway airports in an effort to prevent a terrorist attack like the one against the Brussels airport when suicide bombers attacked a departure hall.

The Israeli Airport Authority will be paid $245,000 to examine the airport's technology and protocols as well as the curbside areas, baggage check-in and baggage claims.

Evans said she approved the contract on Friday, but said she would hold off on finalizing the contract at the request Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) until the firm discloses some economic information.

The firm — which could complete the first phase of their work by August — could be paid an additional $550,000 for a second phase of work, Evans said.

No American firm has the expertise needed to complete the work, Evans said.

While Dowell said she was troubled that a foreign firm was going to complete this work, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said he was pleased the Israeli government would recommend ways to make Chicago's airport's safer, calling the country the "Michael Jordan of airport security."

"We are a target," Villegas said.

After the meeting, Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) said the future of the Aviation Security Officers was "up in the air."

"We have a lot of work to do," Zalewski said.