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CMPD requests higher number of officers at airport

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which took over aviation security in December, wants to boost security staff by nearly one-third to 62 officers – a move the airport director opposes because of the added cost.

Since taking over at the airport, the police department said it is being more aggressive in investigating crime, and the number of reported crimes has doubled. CMPD said it is focusing thefts at Transportation Security Administration Security lines and by airline contract workers who steal items passengers leave on airplanes.

Under the plan, Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s police costs would rise to $5.5 million, which includes equipment and other costs, according to the airport’s budget. That’s up from the $2.6 million spent in fiscal 2012, when the airport had 41 officers.

Aviation director Jerry Orr said he opposes the increases because the added cost is passed on to the airlines. Some Charlotte officials argue that the city decision to switch to CMPD was correct, and that airport security is now more effective.

The tension highlights the ongoing struggle to control Charlotte’s airport. The General Assembly is considering a bill that would transfer control of Charlotte Douglas away from city government to an appointed authority.

The city is trying to show legislators and the community that it has helped the aviation department run Charlotte Douglas, which is now the nation’s sixth-busiest airport based on takeoffs and landings.

Increase in reported crimes

Under the bill filed by state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, the new authority would be able to hire its own police force, giving it the power to take law enforcement supervision back from the city. Other airport authorities in North Carolina operate their own police forces.

The biggest increase in reported crimes has been in larcenies, according to the police memo. CMPD said the jump is due to the department taking a “proactive enforcement strategy” that’s more likely to catch criminals.

But Orr told the Observer on Friday he doesn’t think the airport needs to hire any more police.

“I don’t support that,” he said. One reason, he said, is that the airlines ultimately pay for the cost of a larger police force through higher user fees, which they ultimately pass on to passengers.

“All of that cost is being reimbursed,” he said. “The more people you have, the higher the cost.”

The decision by former City Manager Curt Walton to put CMPD in charge of airport security in November upset Orr, who alreadywas concerned that Walton was exerting too much influence over the airport. Orr has historically run the airport with little outside control.

Orr has said in past interviews that the airport could benefit from being run by an authority.

Asked Friday whether the police force was doing a good job before it was integrated into CMPD, Orr said: “Of course they were. Absolutely.”

Orr said he doesn’t know why the crime numbers increased.

“I haven’t really looked at it. It could have been any number of things,” he said.

CMPD has been in control at the airport for only two months, which isn’t a large amount of time to analyze long-term trends. It’s possible that the increase in larcenies is the result of more crime, not aggressive policing.

But City Council member David Howard said the city’s decision to switch security to CMPD is an example of why the airport should stay under its control.

“We don’t just want to be the most efficient, lowest-cost airport,” Howard said. “We want to be the safest.”

The officers who work at Charlotte Douglas haven’t changed since the takeover. But instead of reporting to the airport, the officers are now part of CMPD’s chain of command. The officers’ dispatching and communications have been transferred from the airport to CMPD’s communications center.

In the last two months, the airport has had 50 reported incidents of larceny. When Charlotte Douglas was in charge of airport police, there were 18 incidents of larceny reported a year ago and 13 incidents two years ago during the same time period.

Deputy Chief Kerr Putney’s four-page memo – which was partially redacted for security reasons – outlined some of the changes CMPD made since December:

• CMPD has partnered with an airline to reduce thefts once flights arrive at the gate. The report said that contract workers were stealing items left behind on planes.

The airline, whose name was blacked out in the memo, has donated two iPads and one iPhone for crime stings, according to the memo.

US Airways, which operates 90 percent of the flights at Charlotte Douglas, said in a statement that the airline’s security team has worked closely with airport police. That includes coordinating with police to recover items passengers leave behind. “There have been a few instances where an item was stolen, but these occasional occurrences do not constitute a pervasive theft problem,” spokeswoman Michelle Mohr wrote.

• CMPD said it is working to combat thefts since an employee was arrested for theft at a security screening lane.

The police blacked out which agency they are working with. However, a TSA screener was fired after being charged with stealing $36 from a passenger’s suitcase on New Year’s Day.

• The department also hopes to get access to the airport’s camera security systems, run by the airport and different federal agencies. “This video integration could greatly enhance security,” according to the memo.

CMPD declined to comment on the memo or its new strategy at the airport.

An airport employee, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told the Observer he had seen more officers patrolling parking lots and the terminal since the switch to CMPD.

Tisdale prompted review

Security became an issue at Charlotte Douglas after the November 2010 death of a North Mecklenburg High student, Delvonte Tisdale. Law enforcement believes Tisdale breached airport security and climbed inside the wheel well of a US Airways jet bound for Boston.

Tisdale’s body was found near Boston Logan airport, in the approach path for planes.

After Tisdale’s death, Walton asked CMPD to investigate airport security. The report said that Charlotte Douglas needed more security and improved perimeter fencing.

Earlier this month, Mayor Anthony Foxx and the Charlotte City Council wrote a letter to Mecklenburg’s legislative delegation, asking them to study the implications of switching Charlotte Douglas to an authority.

In the letter, they said one way the city had effectively managed the airport was improving security. It said a two-year review “revealed deficiencies severe enough to warrant turning over policing at the airport to Chief Monroe and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department.”

Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which is run by an authority, has its own police force that reports to airport officials, said airport spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin. Piedmont Triad International Airport, also run by an authority, has its own police force as well.

Bill on fast track

Two Matthews Republicans, Rucho and State Rep. William Brawley, are leading the push to shift control of Charlotte Douglas to an authority.

Rucho’s bill is on a fast track. It passed the Senate Rules Committee this week, and will now go to the Finance Committee, which Rucho chairs. If passed it would then go to the full Senate. If the legislature approves it, the bill does not need Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature to become law.

Rucho has said that the airport should be run by a full-time authority. He said the business community supports the authority and that some are concerned the city is becoming too involved in the airport’s day-to-day operations.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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