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Thefts at LAX Spur Calls for Stricter Hiring

April 08, 2001|NOAKI SCHWARTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cameron Diaz rushed through a Los Angeles International Airport security checkpoint on her way to Hawaii but left her purse behind. Thieves descended on the actress' bag, split the $7,600 in cash, ripped up her passport and tossed the remains into a nearby grocery store Dumpster.

They hadn't just violated airport security. They were airport security--a "screener"--someone who stands watch as travelers put their items on the X-ray conveyor belt--and two supervisors.

Los Angeles police say employee thefts are a problem at one of the world's busiest airports, raising questions about how well airlines and subcontractors screen the people they hire to handle and inspect tens of millions of suitcases a year.

Although hard-and-fast statistics are difficult to come by, some studies have suggested that significant numbers of airport employees have criminal backgrounds. That, combined with the amount of suspected crime airport workers commit, persuaded the LAPD in 1996 to establish a special LAX crime unit.

Since the inception of the unit, police say, they have caught airlines' agents marking luggage carried by well-dressed travelers, alerting baggage handlers to tear into promising bags. They've caught screeners on camera going through luggage instead of X-raying it in back rooms. In the dark football-field-sized garages where bags are moved on and off planes by "ramp rats," authorities say, they have also found piles of broken luggage locks, sliced bags and damaged security cameras.

Theft Statistics May Understate Problem

"Travelers give their luggage to skycaps, and that's the last time you'll see your bags until you get to your destination," said LAPD Det. Dave Randall. "One bag could pass through nearly a dozen hands from start to finish."

According to airport police statistics--LAX has its own police force, which often works with the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies--the vast majority of people arrested for stealing from luggage are not airport workers.

Still, although only 5% of the 402 arrests made last year were employees, security officials take the problem seriously. In part, their concerns are based on what some see as security lapses created by rapid hiring and poor background checks.

Moreover, the statistics themselves may understate the problem, according to security experts. Passengers file most reports of missing items with the airlines, not the police, raising questions of whether all thefts are accounted for or whether some are mislabeled as instances of property being lost.

"I don't even know how to quantify it, since you can't tell if something is lost or stolen," said LAX airport police Chief Bernard Wilson. "Also, it's possible for someone to have something missing from their luggage and file a claim. The airline may or may not report it to law enforcement. "

National airport officials became so concerned about the problem of faulty background checks that at the end of December, the Federal Aviation Administration tightened employee checks to weed out potential thieves and other criminals.

"Studies have shown [that] 35% of airport personnel have criminal histories," said Paul Hudson, a consumer advocate who serves on the FAA's Aviation Security Advisory Committee. "We have a situation where the personnel guarding the lives of airport passengers get far less scrutiny than bank tellers who get full FBI checks."

At LAX, some of the employees arrested have admitted having criminal records, and others have told the LAPD they are paid so little that they see stealing as a "benefit" of the job.

Typically, baggage and cargo handlers, who earn $14,500 to $31,200 a year, do not work directly for the airport, but rather for an airline, most of which contract with companies such as Ogden or Hudson General. Security screeners are also contracted from security companies. Background checks are left to the direct bosses and aren't the responsibility of LAX officials, said an airport spokeswoman.

"It's like a landlord arrangement," said LAX spokesman Tom Winfrey. "LAX and the FAA do conduct random audits of employment checks and records. But I can't even discuss security measures."

Pressure to hire is intense, because turnover is as high as 100% in 10 months at some companies, said the most recent federal study, done five years ago. The result, at least in one instance, was to allow Jose Jimenez--a worker with three previous convictions--to be hired by a contract company that provides baggage and cargo handling services.

In February, Jimenez was caught stealing $3,000 worth of clothing from Qantas Airways and convicted of grand theft. By that time, he had already been convicted of carrying a concealed weapon without a license, entering occupied property without consent and receiving lost or stolen property, court documents said.

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