Keeping Pace With Change: LAXPD’s Diverse History

The Los Angeles Airport Police Department has grown exponentially since its origin with just six officers and one sergeant in 1946. Along the way, its responsibilities have continued to evolve in response to local events and the shifting global security environment. The rich history of the LAXPD demonstrates its officers’ constant commitment to ensuring the safety of the traveling public and the residents of Los Angeles, as well as the crucial importance of having an on-site, specially trained force dedicated to airport law enforcement.

After World War II, the War Department transferred what was then called the Los Angeles Municipal Airport (Mines Field) to the City of L.A., which employed only a handful of armed guards to secure it. By 1959, the force had 12 members and was known as the Security Division of the Operations Bureau. With the dawn of the Jet Age and the opening of a new passenger terminal in 1961, a detachment of LAPD officers were permanently assigned to work closely with the airport guards, who were now called special officers. In 1968, as aircraft hijackings increased in frequency, the state legislature granted the special officers limited peace officer status to support voluntary passenger screening operations. There were about 70 airport special officers and sergeants by 1973, plus a single lieutenant. That year, in response to increased hijacking concerns, a separate 82-member force called the Boarding Services Bureau was created to provide an armed presence at passenger screening stations.

In preparation for the 1984 Summer Olympics, LAX embarked on a $700 million expansion and the Boarding Services Bureau merged with the Security Division, becoming the Airport Security Bureau. With increased travel to LAX and limited availability of LAPD resources — busy elsewhere in the city getting ready for the Olympics — the special officers assumed more duties. They attended the Rio Hondo Police Academy for six weeks to receive reserve-level police training, and the Bureau adopted peace officer background requirements. During the Olympics, airport officers were responsible for patrolling terminals and escorting and protecting visiting athletes, and the Bureau was renamed the Los Angeles Airport Police.

Staffing further increased in 1984 as the openings of the Tom Bradley International Terminal and Terminal 1 doubled the passenger capacity of LAX, and heightened security requirements for international flights were implemented in response to a rash of overseas hijackings involving U.S. carriers. With added responsibilities came elevated professional standards. Starting in 1986, new officers were required to attend a full-length police academy, as were existing officers who had not already done so. In 1989, the Airport Police were accepted into the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Specialized Law Enforcement program.

When LAPD officers assigned to LAX were deployed to respond to the 1992 L.A. Riots, it was a reminder that those resources could be called away from the airport at any time to deal with situations in other parts of the city. This led to the hiring of additional LAXPD officers so that sufficient security services would be dedicated to the airport at all times. The voters of Los Angeles approved a 1999 City Charter amendment to ensure that airport policing resources would remain controlled by the Board of Airport Commissioners, not the LAPD or the City Council. In 2005, voters reaffirmed their support for the LAXPD’s autonomy by decisively defeating a ballot measure that would have paved the way for an LAPD takeover of airport law enforcement.

The need for a strong and consistent airport police presence was reinforced by rising international terrorist threats, such as the 1995 Project Bojinka plot in which LAX was an intended target, and the foiled Millennium Plot that included plans to place a luggage bomb in the baggage claim on New Year’s Eve 1999 — prompting the LAXPD to expand its K-9 program to include non-FAA explosive-detection and patrol dogs. The September 11, 2001, attacks added another level of responsibility for protecting global aviation operations. Due to additional security mandates, the Airport Police more than doubled in personnel and began seeking additional statutory authority to meet the increased requirements. In 2004, LAXPD members were reclassified from special officers to airport police officers, and the next year POST performed a feasibility study that recommended LAXPD be categorized under California Penal Code Section 830.1, upgrading it to the same status as the LAPD and other municipal departments. After a seven-year legislative effort, this was finally achieved when AB 128, sponsored by Assembly Member Steve Bradford, became law effective January 1, 2014.

As LAX keeps expanding in the 21st century, thwarted potential terrorist incidents and crimes against persons — including the 2002 El Al ticket-counter shooting and the November 1, 2013, Terminal 3 shooting — continue to underscore the importance of maintaining the highest level of security. Yet airport management is not properly investing in its police force to meet today’s needs. “From outdated equipment and facilities to four consecutive years of decreased police and security officer staffing through attrition and lack of advertising to hire new recruits, we are not being given the basic tools we need to ensure the highest level of passenger safety,” says LAAPOA President Marshall McClain. Recruitment issues are compounded by a serious pay inequity problem, with lower compensation and benefits than other regional police agencies.

This neglect of security infrastructure and personnel fails to honor the LAXPD’s proud history of diversity and devoted service. “Mayor Tom Bradley and the Department of Airports saw a need to create a specific job classification for LAX officers due to people of color being turned away time and time again for other law enforcement jobs in the city,” says McClain. “We have evolved over the years to meet changing needs while remaining one of the most diverse law enforcement agencies, reflecting the demographics of the city and the almost 18 million foreign passengers who traveled through LAX last year alone. Yet we still cannot get equal pay for equal work — even receiving compensation for bilingual officers working at an international airport is a fight with our management. Our story demonstrates that we are willing and able to rise to the many challenges of keeping LAX safe, but we must have sufficient resources and equal compensation to continue attracting the best and brightest officers to do this job.”