Now Is the Time for L.A. to Act on Its Commitment to Equity

In June 2020, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive directive to study and promote racial equity in the hiring, promotion and contracting practices of City departments, promising that the move “ensures our City leadership looks at every issue through a lens of racial justice [and] acts to end structural racism.” Despite this commitment, we have seen little action on the issue of equity as it relates to LAAPOA members, particularly LAX’s majority-minority police department. As we celebrate Black History Month, LAAPOA looks back on our long fight for pay and benefits parity for our proudly diverse membership. Though we have achieved many victories, much more remains to be done, and we continue to call for equity for all of the City’s sworn peace officers.

The 75-year history of the LAXPD is rooted in diversity. “Mayor Tom Bradley and the Department of Airports saw a need to create a specific job classification due to minorities being turned away time and time again for other law enforcement jobs,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain explains. The original designation of LAXPD members as “special officers” opened up opportunities within policing to many people of color who otherwise might have been denied the chance to serve, but it also set up hurdles as the department grew in numbers and responsibilities to meet the evolving needs of the airport, the surrounding community and the global aviation security environment. Increasing threats such as hijackings, terrorist activity and mass shootings reinforced the importance of having a consistent, dedicated, professional airport law enforcement agency, independent from the City’s general police department. Called on to deal with everything from bomb threats to traffic enforcement, the LAXPD developed numerous specialized units, including K-9, Motorcycle Patrol, Dignitary Protection and Emergency Services. Officers working at LAX completed the same training and met the same POST standards as their counterparts at LAPD. Yet the battle for equality for LAXPD’s members has been long and hard-fought.

In 2005, POST conducted a feasibility study that recommended LAXPD personnel be categorized under California Penal Code Section 830.1, upgrading them to the same status as the LAPD and other municipal departments. But it took a seven-year legislative effort by LAAPOA before that change became law in 2014, finally affording airport police the respect commensurate with their training and professionalism. Whereas LAXPD had previously had to call in LAPD for assistance with tasks they were not legally sanctioned to do, the reclassification expanded their authority to perform all the routine duties necessary for the safe operation of a major airport. In spite of this, the City continued to illegally divert airport revenue away from LAWA’s operating budget to pay for LAPD policing services that could have been handled by in-house LAXPD personnel.

Moreover, even though LAXPD and LAPD officers had the same training and status, performed the same duties and faced the same dangers in the line of duty, paid the same taxes and cost-of-living expenses and were employed by the same city, they faced significant discrepancies in pay and benefits. In 2014, LAAPOA pointed out that, on average, LAXPD officers were paid 25% less than LAPD officers assigned to LAX and had to work 14 years longer to receive the same retirement level and percentage. In 2015, LAAPOA Vice President Julius Levy noted in an op-ed that it had been more than six years since LAXPD members last received a cost-of-living adjustment. “It’s hard to believe that in a city that champions and, in fact, paves the way for equality for all on all matters … Airport Police officers are still treated like second-class citizens when it comes to pay,” he wrote. This inequality was still an issue in 2016, when LAAPOA highlighted the lack of investment in airport police salaries, benefits, equipment and facilities and asked, “Shouldn’t LAWA management be focused on modernizing not only its outdated security infrastructure but also the compensation model that reinforces the underpayment of its diverse workforce?” Later that year, LAAPOA scored a major victory in the battle for equal pay for equal work when the L.A. City Council unanimously approved a contract giving airport police officers a salary increase and base wage parity adjustments to ensure that they were compensated competitively compared to their LAPD counterparts, although the inequity in retirement benefits remained.

Fast-forward to 2020, when issues of racial justice dominated the headlines, and governments, corporations and other organizations were quick to express their support for equality and inclusion. While Garcetti acknowledged that “Our city is hungry for change, and we must knit racial justice … into the fabric of our policies, our institutions and our society,” LAAPOA took on the toxic culture of discrimination and retaliation created at LAXPD by LAWA Deputy Executive Director for Law Enforcement and Homeland Security David L. Maggard Jr. Even after reviewing the nine discrimination lawsuits filed against DED Maggard, the mayor-appointed Board of Airport Commissioners (only one member of which is African-American) claimed to find “no pattern of practice” and took no disciplinary action. LAAPOA called for an independent investigation and warned that an environment that undervalues, demoralizes and retaliates against minorities undermines the strength and effectiveness of the entire force. As yet, however, the City has taken no action.

Despite the obstacles, LAAPOA has made many strides in negotiating improved wages, benefits and working conditions for our members. Significant recent signs of progress have included the hiring of a strong and respected leader in Chief Cecil Rhambo, the promotion of outstanding internal candidates for assistant chief positions and the construction of a new state-of-the-art policing headquarters. However, “City politicians have a long way to go to fulfill their sweeping promises of a more equal, fair and just society,” McClain says. “In our discussions with Mayor Garcetti prior to the pandemic, he stated that he supported LAAPOA’s goals of achieving parity in pay, benefits and equipment for our members, who are all sworn peace officers for the city of Los Angeles. We believe all peace officers in this city should have the same pension benefits, safety equipment — such as body-worn cameras, and firearms for our park rangers — and, most crucially, salary parity. LAAPOA will continue working with the Mayor’s Office and City Council until this equality is achieved. Our skilled and hard-working members, who are a reflection of the diverse metropolis they serve, deserve nothing less.”