LAX shooting sparks debate on security, arming TSA agents

Creating a fail-safe security perimeter for the terminal area would be extremely costly and might shift attacks to other public gathering places

By Laura J. Nelson and Dan Weikel
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — LAX police and the federal Transportation Security Administration are reviewing protocols in the wake of the shooting  Friday that left a TSA agent dead and several other people wounded.

At a news conference over the weekend, TSA Administrator John Pistole said his agency's review will include the question of whether its agents should be armed (they are not presently). "We will look at what our policies and procedures are and what provides the best possible security," he said.

A review is also planned at LAX.

Experts have long said that lobbies, ticketing counters, baggage claim areas and sidewalks of the nine terminals at Los Angeles International Airport are easily accessible to attackers intent on bringing firearms or bombs into the airport's public areas.

Creating a fail-safe security perimeter for the terminal area, however, would be extremely costly and might shift attacks by those seeking to do harm to other public gathering places, said Brian Jenkins, an authority on terrorism and aviation security at Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank.

"It would be very hard to do," Jenkins said. "There would be very little net security benefit. Terrorists could go somewhere else, like attack a shopping mall in Nairobi or a theater in Aurora, Colo., or Times Square. What do we really gain?"

In Friday morning's attack, authorities said, a gunman identified by police as Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, carried an assault-style rifle through the lobby of Terminal 3 and began shooting as he passed through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint.

The gunman then continued through a corridor of shops, apparently looking for TSA employees, officials said. Witnesses said he fired additional shots before being wounded by airport police near a circular area of passenger boarding gates.

One TSA agent checking passenger identifications near the checkpoint was killed — the first in the agency's history — and at least two other agency employees and one civilian were wounded by gunfire.

On Saturday, Patrick Gannon, chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police Department, said the incident would be thoroughly reviewed to assess the police response and determine whether security improvements were needed. He praised the heroism of the officers who stopped the gunman near a fast-food restaurant in the terminal.

Internal reviews of such major incidents can be "brutal," Gannon said, adding that he expects his department to make security adjustments as a result.

Some say the attack points to soft spots in airport security and the need for additional measures, including more uniformed and plainclothes police on hand.

Marshall McClain, a veteran airport policeman and president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Assn., said that earlier this year, armed police officers were shifted from their fixed assignments at TSA checkpoints to patrolling inside and outside passenger terminals.

The fixed positioning of the officers was a product of post-9/11 concerns that terrorists could breach checkpoints and reach passenger gates and parked aircraft.

McClain said patrolling officers were not at or near the TSA screening area when Friday's attack occurred. But he added that it's not clear whether having a police officer at the site could have prevented the shooting.

"In general, the officers are a good idea," McClain said. "They could be a deterrent."

He noted that the gunman who attacked the El Al Airlines ticket counter at the Tom Bradley International Terminal on July 4, 2002, waited until uniformed police officers had left the area.

In that shooting, an Egyptian-born man armed with a handgun killed two people and wounded several others before a security guard working for El Al fatally shot him.

Adding police officers to terminals and returning them to checkpoints might be beneficial, Jenkins said. But he agreed that it is hard to say whether they could have stopped Friday's attack. The gunman, Jenkins said, could have killed an officer before moving past the checkpoint and into the terminal.

"A suicidal guy with a big rifle can walk through the doors of a terminal, get shots off and hit people," Jenkins said.

Copyright 2013 the Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
  1. Tags
  2. Terrorism Prevention and Response

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

logo for print