“You cannot have it all ways, and you are putting a bullseye on LAX,” Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association (LAAPOA) President Marshall McClain is warning the leaders of the City of Los Angeles. “The City has a long history of treating our officers like second-class citizens, and now is the time to say enough is enough.”
LAAPOA is currently in negotiations with Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) and the City for the next contracts for the sworn members of the Los Angeles Airport Police Department (LAXPD). It is also negotiating successor contracts with the City for both the Los Angeles Municipal Police Officers and the Los Angeles Park Rangers. Notably, all three agencies have higher-than-average levels of minority peace officers in their ranks. In fact, LAXPD, the largest proprietary police force in the United States, is one of the largest majority-minority police agencies in the U.S. and has a disproportionately high number of women on the force as well.
The City owns LAX, but it is bound by federal airport diversion laws that dictate that 100% of the funds generated by the airport must be solely spent on airport-specific matters. Despite this, however, LAWA and the City of L.A. both have a shameful track record of diverting airport funds to City programs, including for LAPD policing services — a dangerous practice that has placed all federal transportation funds and the airport in jeopardy. The violations have left LAX, the second-busiest airport in the world and the most notable international terrorist target on the West Coast, in a highly vulnerable position. Diversion has not only resulted in costly federal fines, but also weakened security through a lack of investment in staffing, equipment and facilities for the full-time, on-site, specially trained aviation law enforcement professionals at LAXPD who are dedicated to protecting the airport and its travelers.
To make matters worse, the newly hired senior labor relations specialist for the Office of the City Administrative Officer (CAO) is none other than the former president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), the union that represents Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) members. It might seem that a former police union labor leader would support LAAPOA and its members; however, the years of his LAPPL leadership were highly contentious. At every opportunity, he lobbied against the idea that Airport Police officers should receive pay and benefits equal to what other public safety officers receive for the equal work that they perform. He also supported “One City, One Police Department,” a plan to merge all other law enforcement agencies into LAPD. During his reign, he pushed the LAPPL to spend over a million dollars lobbying against LAAPOA’s efforts to achieve equity of pay and benefits. Is it a coincidence that it took his union 90 years to elect its first Black director? In an incredible irony, that historic milestone occurred to fill the seat he vacated. Is it also a coincidence that, within a month of his retirement, the City would now hire him to be the lead negotiator in police labor talks?
Efforts to consolidate the City’s public safety agencies have been rebuffed numerous times by L.A. voters. Voters also agreed in 2018 that all new Airport Police officers would receive the same pension benefits as other City peace officers. In spite of such clear indications that citizens believe the City’s specialized forces have their own value and expertise and deserve to be treated accordingly, LAAPOA and its members have had to continue to fight for equity in wages, benefits, equipment and working conditions. But when the job descriptions, minimum qualifications and training are nearly identical across all of the City’s law enforcement agencies, why is there such a disparity in pay and benefits? How is it possible that, in a self-proclaimed “progressive” and pro-labor city like L.A., we still have a pay gap?
The fact that these diverse workforces continue to be underpaid and undervalued constitutes a significant stain on the City’s commitment to promoting racial equity in its employment practices. The City has made it a priority to hire equity officers throughout all of its departments, suggesting that it knows there is an issue of equity that needs to be addressed through these newly created positions. But so far, these changes appear to have just been window dressing. “Sadly, in our experience, the Chief Equity Officer wouldn’t know equity if it hit him square in the face,” McClain says. “If you have no desire to hear or address the issues plaguing the labor force, how can you proclaim you’re here to achieve equity, as your title suggests?”
Examples of inequity remain rampant, such as the Hispanic female LAXPD senior K-9 handler/trainer who trains her white male LAPD counterparts but receives substantially lesser pay, benefits and pension. Or how about the highest-ranking female Park Ranger captain? The City refuses to bring her total compensation above that of a line officer with LAPD and still fails to fully equip her and her fellow rangers with safety equipment to do their jobs. Or the senior lead officers of the Municipal Police who work in the same division alongside LAPD, yet aren’t provided the same level of pay, benefits or opportunities to promote within their own division?
The imbalance extends all the way to the top. There’s the biracial African-American/Korean-American police chief who leads a sworn and civilian staff nearly four times the size of that commanded by his white counterpart at the Port Police, but who is being paid a substantially smaller salary. And it was only a couple of years ago that LAWA lost its Black female CEO to Canada due to the City of Los Angeles refusing to pay her a compensation package on par with other airports of similar size. She had to leave for another country and a smaller airport to receive better compensation.
For a city government committed to racial justice and ending structural racism, the optics of such examples are extremely unflattering, to say the least. If the City of L.A. truly stands for equity, then why are such blatant instances of unequal treatment still occurring among the employees of its agencies? If this isn’t about race or gender, what is it about? The excuse cannot be financial. LAX leadership is still undervaluing and underpaying airport police officers while its revenues outpace almost every airport in the U.S. and worldwide, not to mention the hundreds of millions in COVID stimulus money it received. The City of Los Angeles received more than a billion dollars in federal stimulus funds. With the ranks of law enforcement dwindling faster than you can find interested qualified applicants as crime continues to rise, how does refusing to invest in the existing force of trained, qualified, specialized peace officers make any good business sense?
“We must educate the City of L.A. and remind the leaders of LAWA, the Department of Recreation and Parks, the LAPD, the CAO and the mayor of the value of our peace officers at LAX and Van Nuys Airports, in our parks and throughout the city,” McClain says. “Just because someone who probably owes a favor decided to hire a retired guy back to the City with a biased agenda to lead the negotiations does not mean we are rolling over. We will fight to the end of time to stop the devaluation and continued marginalization of our LAXPD officers, our Park Rangers and the Municipal Police officers within LAPD.
“If you think LAAPOA does not have the intellectual capabilities to make our case and the stamina to fight against the ugliness and prejudice we are experiencing in our negotiations, remember: If this goes to impasse, we are able to make all the fact-finding available to the public,” he continues.
“We will never back down, and the more we are insulted and diminished, the more it feeds us. The City cannot continue to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion and do exactly the opposite when it comes time to pay for these predominately minority members of its workforce. On the heels of Juneteenth, as we prepare to take the world stage with the Olympics around the corner, it is time to put action behind the words and provide equal pay for equal work. If the City wishes to test our resolve and how far we will take this, let’s go where we need to go. We are up for it. The world is watching.”