The city of Chicago’s controversial Aviation Police are officially no more.
But the union representing the beleaguered unit says it won’t take the demotion lying down.
The officers most recently rose to prominence, when several members engaged in the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight last April. Video of that incident was broadcast around the world.
The city received a letter June 29 from the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, informing them that based on the Aviation Department’s own assessment that the officers perform only unarmed security functions, “and are neither police officers nor special police officers,” that they were officially being deactivated as a law enforcement agency.
For years the Aviation Police have been engaged in an acrimonious battle over their status, with the disagreements often boiling over with Chicago Police over who has the right to actively enforce the law at O’Hare. The Aviation unit has consistently protested a Department edict that they not carry guns.
But the state action officially declares that “they are not law enforcement officers ... and have no authority as such to make arrests or carry firearms.”
In a blistering report issued Wednesday, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans called the United incident “completely unacceptable”, and said that going forward, it would be the Aviation Department’s firm position that Chicago Police will be the lead agency on all disturbance calls at O’Hare and Midway, with the now-officially dubbed “Aviation Security Officers” responsible for monitoring access points, providing on-field escorts, crowd control and other security duties on the sterile sides of the airports.
“This is the way it’s done,” Evans told NBC 5. “It’s well understood outside of Chicago.”
But through their union, the aviation officers pushed back.
“Our officers have been working hard at that airport for 30 years as police, performing all of the duties of police officers and maintaining safety and order at the airport,” Jeffrey Howard, of Service Employees Local 73 told NBC5. “When something happens at the airport, our officers are always the first ones on the scene, and we handle these situations every day!”
The union accused Evans of scapegoating their officers, “rather than take a look at her own failed policies and mismanagement.”
But Evans said she doesn’t want armed security officers roaming the secure side of the field, where the majority of the Aviation officers are assigned. The two-step approach, with armed police splitting duties with unarmed security guards, she said, is common practice at the top 30 airports across the United States.
“You don’t have security guards with guns,” she said. “That’s not the way it’s done.”
The union said it would fight the new effort through their collective bargaining process. But Evans said she is moving forward, re-branding the officers on their uniforms and vehicles to make clear exactly what their new role will be.
“I don’t care about personalities, I care about performance,” she said. “We expect them to embrace and perform these duties.”