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Security improvements urged for LAX

Emergency management, security of its facilities and the airport police force needs improvement, a new study by a panel of experts says.

November 03, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

Citing a $1.6-billion investment in security measures since 9/11, a study released Wednesday concludes that Los Angeles International Airport is much safer today but still needs to improve emergency management, the security of its facilities and the airport police force.

The report, from a panel of experts created last year by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, leveled some of its strongest criticism at the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department. Panelists questioned the leadership of Chief George Centeno, cited a lack of accountability, and referred to continuing and disruptive tensions with the Los Angeles Police Department, which helps patrol LAX.

The report broached the idea of creating a single airport police agency, a move the experts believe could improve operations and resolve many long-standing problems. But panelists acknowledged that a merger between LAPD and airport police would be difficult politically given voters' rejection of the idea in 2005, when then- Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton pressed for a consolidation under what was then known as Measure A.

Panelists also cited a perception that the airport administration under Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey has emphasized the ongoing modernization of LAX and made security a secondary priority.

Among other things, the study found that Lindsey does not attend a variety of LAX public safety meetings, emergency management does not have a high enough priority and the airport department needs a public safety director — a position that was eliminated under Lindsey's watch.

Reacting to that finding, Villaraigosa recently filled the position with Arif Alikhan, a former Los Angeles deputy mayor and an expert in counterterrorism. Centeno, who recently announced his retirement, could not be reached for comment Wednesday

Lindsey defended her record, citing the progress the airport has made in security improvements since 9/11 as well as after she became executive director in 2007.

"The criticism of me goes with the territory," Lindsey said. "We have committed to a great deal of expenditures from both an operating standpoint and from a capital commitment standpoint. Does that mean everything is perfect? Absolutely not. Does that mean there are things we can improve upon in the future? You bet."

In general, panelists described LAX as "very safe" and gave the nation's third busiest commercial airport good marks for its security effort since 9/11.

The report states that the airport has added about 250 law enforcement personnel and spent $1.1 billion to expand security and $500 million for capital improvements such as perimeter fencing, barriers, security cameras, baggage screening systems and a new communications center.

"LAX is safe and is safer today than it was following 9/11," said Villaraigosa, who added that the airport already has implemented the majority of the report's 186 recommendations. "We are committed to making it even safer."

Villaraigosa created the 27-member panel last November in response to news reports related to police staffing, fire safety and communication problems involving law enforcement agencies at LAX. The group included experts with backgrounds in homeland security, law enforcement, academia, anti-terrorism, technology and emergency management. Lourdes G. Baird, a retired federal judge, chaired the panel.

The group concluded that Centeno, the airport police chief, has not asserted strong leadership nor has he taken enough responsibility for the disciplinary process, personnel accountability, audits and inspections, which the report found lacking.

The findings noted that a strained relationship remains between commanders and the Los Angeles Airport Police Officers Assn., which panelists accused of making inaccurate statements about the airport's vulnerabilities and security weaknesses.

In addition, panelists said they regularly saw airport officers standing around talking to each other for extended periods instead of patrolling the terminals.

Marshall McClain, president of the police officers association, defended the rank-and-file, saying the problems are with the airport administration and police chief. Noting LAX's declining crime rate, he dismissed assertions that airport officers weren't doing their job.

"Outside of this panel," McClain said, "there is no one complaining about the airport police as far as their professionalism, their training and how we do our job."

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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