The LAPD has a substation and officers at LAX. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Authorities are looking into whether the Los Angeles Police Department misappropriated millions of dollars it was paid for providing law enforcement services at Los Angeles International Airport.
Federal Aviation Administration officials say they have begun reviewing a recent complaint alleging that the LAPD overcharged the airport and used the money to bolster city coffers and pay for police expenses unrelated to security at LAX, which has been described as a top potential target for terrorists.
According to federal regulations, revenue earned by an airport from landing fees, terminal rents, concessions and other charges must be used only for airport purposes. Should violations be found, the city could be required to pay money back to the airport.
If so, it will not be the first time Los Angeles has had to do so in a diversion case involving LAX.
In 2009, the city agreed to repay $21.2 million to the city's airport agency, Los Angeles World Airports, including $18.1 million that was given to L.A. Inc., the city's visitors and convention bureau. In 1996, the FAA ordered the city to return $31 million in LAX funds that had been earmarked to balance the city budget.
Citing a sample of financial records, the complaint asserts that LAPD imposes exorbitant fees for assigning anywhere from 50 to 150 full- and part-time officers a year to LAX, where they share law enforcement duties with the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, a separate agency.
Documents show, for example, that the LAPD charged the airport agency about $384,000 in the 2008-09 fiscal year for the services of a police captain, who earned a salary of about $148,000.
The department charged about $196,000 apiece to supply 20 full-time patrol officers, even though they earn about $80,000 annually. It cost the airport more than $250,000 apiece for seven sergeants, who earned $102,000 a year.
In those and other cases, the airport agency reimbursed the LAPD at a rate that was more than double the officer's salary.
The complaint was filed by the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Assn., which represents more than 400 officers from the airport department and has long sought to maintain the independence of the airport's only police service. It notes that in 2008 the airport agency paid as much as $19.5 million for 80 to 90 LAPD officers, including a dozen or so who had part-time duties at the airport.
Records show that the agency also has paid the LAPD tens of millions of dollars a year in overtime for officers, including those who staffed security checkpoints in the terminals. In fiscal year 2009-10, that amounted to between $61 million and $68 million, the complaint states.
In contrast, the airport Police Department has 1,105 sworn and civilian personnel and a $107.4-million annual budget, which includes money for overtime. About 970 department employees, including 450 sworn officers, are assigned to LAX. The rest are stationed at LA/Ontario International Airport and Van Nuys Airport, both of which the city operates.
The complaint further alleges that LAPD officers have been routinely pulled off airport duty to handle other assignments without reimbursement to LAX.
The airport police association alleges that the diversion of funds has prevented improvements to the airport police station, the replacement of aging patrol cars, the hiring of additional officers and the purchase of needed equipment.
"We are committed to the safety of the traveling public," said Marshall McClain, the association's president. "We want to ensure that our officers have all the resources necessary so they can do their job. The diversion issue detracts from our primary mission."
Airport officials declined to comment, except to say they have received a letter of inquiry from the FAA. "We are fully cooperating and are preparing our responses," said Mary Grady, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles World Airports.
Los Angeles police officials defended the billings, saying they were directly related to work the department performs at LAX. The fees, they said, are needed to pay for officer salaries, benefits, training, insurance, equipment, administration and oversight, including command responsibilities in case of disasters.
"The LAPD has been audited many times in the past, and we believe this and future audits will show the LAPD is providing a completely fair service for what is being charged," Cmdr. Andy Smith said.
The complaint underscores a long-standing controversy over whether the LAPD should absorb the airport Police Department and assume all local law enforcement duties at LAX, the nation's third busiest airport.
City voters rejected a merger in 2005, when then-LAPD Chief William J. Bratton pressed for consolidation. This year, a panel of experts appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to evaluate airport security revisited the idea, saying a merger could improve operations and resolve many problems.