LAAPOA Interview Part 2: Retired LAXPD Chief Bernard Wilson

Bernard John WilsonHaving served as Chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police from 1999 to 2005, Bernard Wilson possesses a wealth of experience and perspective on the challenges facing the Department. In the first portion of his interview with LAAPOA, he provided insights about equipment and infrastructure, officer hiring and retention, and the importance of pay and benefits parity. In this second installment, he shares his thoughts regarding security improvements, LAWA’s revenue diversion to LAPD, the obstacles to change, and his hopes for the future of the LAXPD and its officers.

What do you think about some of the process and protocol changes needed to improve security at LAX?

I think that it makes sense to have 9-1-1 calls routed directly to the agency responsible for responding. This is not a new problem for LAX. It started as soon as the 9-1-1 system went in. It’s become worse over the years due to proliferation of cellular phones, with 9-1-1 calls in California going to the CHP. This isn’t just a police issue; fire and EMS calls are also being delayed and misrouted. I realize that there are technical issues, but come on. Calling 9-1-1 from the south side of Imperial Highway gets the call routed to El Segundo P.D. or F.D. Why does a few yards farther north result in calls going to downtown L.A., and Pacific Area units being dispatched?

I have my own opinions about stationing officers at screening. Remember, I used to be one of the officers there in the 1970s. Staying at the screening station was inviolable. No “flexible response” — we had to stay there unless relieved. To be honest, I never liked it. I always felt vulnerable, that I was part of the target, while LEOs should actually be part of the response, not part of the initial event. I truly welcomed the change to “flexible response” when it came in 1981. But even flexible response has drawbacks. I favor a system where actual LEO presence at screening stations isn’t mandated all of the time, but requires frequent “walk-by,” allowing presence in the immediate area as well. Realistically, my opinion is that a five-minute response is too long, but a one-minute response is too limiting. I’d rather advocate for a distance limit, one that would allow a walking response in a reasonable amount of time.

I have studied and seen the employee screening options at various airports. Personally, I’m an advocate for strict background checks and making some crimes disqualifying on a lifetime basis. Screening employees is a tough call. The problem is that the facilities weren’t designed to accommodate that. So many people have, and need, access to sterile areas through airside entrances. Many of them carry tools, so what, in the long run, gets accomplished by screening them? Meanwhile, we all know that if it was mandated, it would happen. To what end, and at what expense, I’m not sure. I’d need to know more about the current LAX-specific risks and issues in order to give a professional analysis.

What is your perspective on the diversion of LAWA funds to pay for LAPD officers at the airport?

Over the years, I got along very well with LAPD for the most part. I think most Airport Police people work well with LAPD and vice versa. It’s when you get into the areas of control and money that problems come up.

I’ve actually arranged for LAPD to be reimbursed for some things. It’s only fair. But I only made those arrangements to pay for “services rendered.” In other words, for every dollar spent, I knew what we were getting and it was something that I asked for. What was always frustrating to me, and I expressed this to a series of LAPD chiefs, mayors and LAWA officials, is being basically handed an invoice with an amount on it and no real explanation as to what it was for — and worse, no control over it. The greater problem, though, was that whatever that LAPD amount was, it was lumped in with ours over the long haul, with a “We are already paying a lot for policing here.” That didn’t help, considering that a sizeable amount wasn’t even going to us and we had no control over it. Airport Police fiscal people and command officers had to account for pennies, while LAPD was basically given money with far less accountability.

As a small example, if we could have agreed on a joint staffing effort for an operation or an event, with delineation of responsibilities and spelling out of costs, no problem. Pay the expected bill. But that’s very different from getting a bill for “patrol at LAX” with no audit or accountability — and no voice in who, how many, how often or where. In fact, I actually submitted a concept to LAPD where we could reimburse them on a “services rendered” basis, and they would have cleared more funds by way of retainers. They turned it down, because it contained one provision that couldn’t agree to: either close the substation or merge their deployment with ours to avoid duplication.

What do you see as the ideal future for the Department?

I look at history for this answer. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey P.D. (PAPD) had a lot of the same issues that we did. They finally resolved many of them with three things:

  1. Their management decided to put full faith and trust in them.
  2. They went to a 20-year pension option.
  3. They became the standalone law enforcement agency for their facilities. (In other words, NYPD gave up their airport roles.)

But I should also point out that they didn’t give up having an effective working relationship with NYPD. PAPD simply started looking at themselves, and started being looked at, as equals to any other agency. LAXPD can do that, too. The selection and training standards pretty much match LAPD’s and have for quite a while. The big difference now is that Airport Police is a dedicated-function agency, providing long-term continuity at critical City facilities.

If I could offer a vision, one that I was working toward (and one that we came close to having post-9/11), it would be something similar to how the Navy and the Marine Corps work together. They both have the same boss (Department of the Navy), they respect each other as professionals and there is a lot of inter-service cooperation. You’ll see Marine pilots in the Blue Angels; the Navy provides doctors, medical corpsmen and chaplains to the Marines; they send people to the same schools, etc. But it’s also clear as to who does what and overlap is minimized.

I’ll share a story from 2001: I came back from a meeting with the mayor (it was Mayor Hahn, who appointed all three of his operational police chiefs to his “Homeland Security Cabinet”: LAPD, Airport Police and Port Police). He had asked me to obtain some information, so I asked one of our captains. Our captain said, “Oh, Captain X from LAPD is handling that for me. I’ll get him.” When Captain X appeared, he told me, “Lieutenant Z is just finishing that, Chief; here he is.” Lieutenant Z was an Airport Police lieutenant, supervising an LAPD sergeant, an airport police sergeant and four officers — two airport, one LAPD and the other a deputy U.S. Marshal. As I later told anybody who would listen, “It’s almost as if we have to see the color of the buttons to tell everyone apart, we are that close.” So, interagency-wise, that’s my ideal. It worked. The only reason it stopped working was Prop A. When Prop A failed, I thought we could put it behind us, but there were hard feelings at Parker Center and City Hall.

Why do you think needed improvements have been so slow to come about?

My personal opinion is that, despite years of excellent work by some incredible people at Airport Police, LAWA has never quite understood what we are. There has always been an impression (an incorrect one) that we somehow exist to supplement LAPD, rather than the other way around. By the way, this is common in specialized agencies in general. Campus police, transit police, etc., all have the same problem. In essence, the core mission of LAWA is running airports, and Airport Police supports that. That makes for a very different environment than in a standalone agency, where the core mission is law enforcement.

Adding to this is the constantly changing political dynamic. As mayors, City Council members and Executive Directors change, so do priorities and needs. The only constants for Airport Police, unfortunately, aren’t popular. Airport Police always needs money. Lots of it. All the time. Every day. And, due to the nature of airport policing, measuring the value of that spent money doesn’t mesh with what other airport divisions do. Mix that in with LAWA staffers’ opinions not being based on police experiences, and you can easily get a “Do they really need that?” sort of questioning, with decisions made in a vacuum.

Then there is access to decision makers. When I started as Chief, I worked for the Airport Manager (that lasted about two weeks; I asked for and received a change). I then worked for a Deputy Executive Director who, while a good boss and an experienced aviation professional, wasn’t a cop. That put me three levels down from the top, often unable to share opinions before decisions were made. Having the Chief of Police at the Deputy Executive Director level is a definite plus. Bottom line, though: If LAWA hasn’t already done so, it needs to decide what it wants Airport Police to be, make that known and stick to it on a long-term basis.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell LAXPD officers?

I keep track of the Department now mostly by Facebook, and I like what I am seeing: active involvement in airport life, better integration with the law enforcement community. I would like everyone to know that, while there definitely is life after retirement from law enforcement, it never leaves you. I no longer wear a badge over my heart — but it’s always in my heart. That, and I am really enjoying life in beautiful Middle Tennessee. I never even thought about living in the South until I came to visit, literally on my first day of retirement. Look me up if you’re ever in Nashville! I’d be happy to connect with anyone from Airport Police on LinkedIn:

Finally, know that I pray for the safety of everyone at the LAXPD, every day.