The City Council moved Tuesday to resurrect a decades-old debate over merging the independent police department that patrols Los Angeles International Airport with the LAPD, citing confusion among multiple agencies that responded last week to a potential hijacking at LAX.
After the incident, law enforcement officials at LAX quarreled over whether an airport police SWAT team had violated protocol when it boarded Singapore Airlines Flight 20 on May 3 after the jet transmitted a computerized hijack alert. The alert was a false alarm.
Problems arose on the ground after several federal agencies failed to inform local officials about the possible hijacking until half an hour before the flight arrived.
Questions over how LAX police handled the incident prompted city leaders to suggest for the second time in as many years that merging the Los Angeles Police Department and the airport police would eliminate communication snafus and costly duplication of resources.
The airport police work to prevent crime at LAX; the LAPD's role there is to book suspects and investigate crimes after they occur. The airport police force employs 309 sworn officers and 298 unarmed security officers at LAX. The LAPD has 52 officers stationed there.
City Councilman Jack Weiss introduced a motion Tuesday that calls for the city agency that operates LAX and the LAPD to present a report analyzing the response to the Singapore Airlines incident to the council's Public Safety Committee in 30 days. Six council members, a majority of the committee, signed Weiss' motion.
The motion asks the airport agency to hire an expert to study the LAX police department's level of training and its capabilities, as well as the costs and benefits of having overlapping police agencies at LAX. It also asks the city attorney to report to the Public Safety Committee on what actions are required to combine the two departments.
"I want to see the airport police consolidated with, and put under the command of, the LAPD," Weiss said in an interview. "This motion is the first step toward making that a reality." In addition to Weiss, those signing the motion included Greig Smith, Cindy Miscikowski, Antonio Villaraigosa, Bernard Parks, Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel.
Weiss was one of several city leaders who made a similar suggestion after a fatal Fourth of July shooting at LAX in 2002 that left three dead, including the Egyptian gunman, and several wounded. The proposal to combine the departments failed to gain momentum later that year after it was opposed by Mayor James K. Hahn and the Airport Commission.
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said last week that even though he could see the merits of merging the LAX police with the LAPD, the current political climate did not support the change.
"The reality is that politically there's no political will to do that right now," he said, adding that it's his impression that Hahn does not support consolidating the two departments.
Hahn said on Tuesday that city leaders should review whether the departments should be merged. "He agrees with Weiss that protocols have to be reviewed and reexamined," said Elizabeth Kaltman, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office.
Airport officials defended the need for a separate police force at LAX, saying LAX police receive specialized training necessary to drive on the airfield, communicate with the Federal Aviation Administration control tower and perform other duties unique to the airport.
"Airport policing and city policing is entirely different," said Michael DiGirolamo, a deputy executive director at the city's airport agency. "Airport policing is very proactive and city policing is reactive."
Completing a merger of the two agencies would not be easy: According to the City Charter adopted by voters in 2000, such a plan would require an amendment to the charter and voter approval.
City officials have tried several times in the last decade to merge the departments. The airport police were established in 1946 and given full authority to patrol the airport in 1968, airport officials have said, because the LAPD didn't have the resources to watch the airfield and write traffic citations.
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.