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Feds support airport police switch as city manager says authority likely

A newly released letter shows the Department of Homeland Security endorsed Charlotte’s decision to put Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police in charge of airport security, which was a source of tension between the city and supporters of creating an independent airport authority.

In a March 18 letter to CMPD chief Rodney Monroe, Delbert Richburg, an assistant special agent at Homeland Security, said his organization was “delighted” when he learned in 2012 that CMPD would be taking over security and that it has “not been disappointed.”

Richburg said law enforcement has improved, and pointed to several currency seizures totaling $225,000 that DHS believes were “associated with criminal activity.”

However, in a separate memo from Monroe released Tuesday, the chief said Charlotte Douglas still has the lowest level of police staffing of any comparable major airport.

The memo also outlines problems Monroe said remain at the airport, such as difficulties patrolling the whole airport perimeter to more training needed for officers and security guards.

Charlotte airport officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on the memo.

The Observer previously reported that airport officials resisted the switch to CMPD, from a structure in which airport police reported to airport management. In emails to each other, airport officials raised concerns that CMPD wasn’t effectively policing the airport and were slow to respond to many calls.

Aviation director Jerry Orr called the switch to CMPD control a “debacle” in one email.

Carlee: Authority likely

Also Tuesday, Charlotte’s new city manager, Ron Carlee, said he thinks the bill to create an independent airport authority is likely to pass the state legislature. Charlotte city officials oppose the bill, which would remove control and ownership of Charlotte Douglas from the city.

“I think it’s a huge challenge at this point,” Carlee told the Observer about defeating the authority bill.

While Carlee said the city is still fighting the bill, currently in the state House, it’s “pretty far down the legislative path” at this point and the city might not win.

Carlee said that if the bill passes, he would focus on working with the new authority to keep Charlotte’s airport running smoothly.

Following US Airways’ pending merger with American Airlines, Charlotte Douglas will be the second-largest hub in the combined company.

“With the airline merger, we really should be focusing on the business of the airport,” Carlee said.

He said the fight over who runs the airport risks becoming a distraction.

And Carlee said US Airways, the airport’s largest tenant by far, should have a voice in choosing the next aviation director.

“If I’m involved in it, yes,” Carlee said.

Longtime aviation director Orr is 72 and has indicated he might retire in the coming year.

US Airways officials and former Charlotte city manager Curt Walton clashed over how much of a role US Airways should have in choosing Orr’s successor, the Observer reported.

Tension around police

The decision in November to transfer airport security to CMPD was controversial. Airport officials vehemently disagreed with the switch, and US Airways was concerned about the higher costs of using CMPD.

Annual security costs recently increased from $2.6 million to $5.5 million, with US Airways paying most of that increase through higher fees charged by the airport. Carlee said he is evaluating security costs at the airport and will prepare a report soon.

If the General Assembly’s bill passes, the new, independent authority would be allowed to hire its own police force.

The city also released an April 5 letter from Monroe to Carlee, updating city management on the transition.

Even after increasing police staff by at least 14 people, Monroe said Charlotte Douglas still has the fewest number of law enforcement officers of the 23 airports with the “Category X” designation, which is the highest level of security threat the Transportation Security Administration gives to airports.

Monroe said his police have “developed more aggressive strategies toward identifying and addressing criminal activity.”

CMPD statistics show the number of larcenies reported during their first two months running airport security increased to 50, compared to 18 the previous year. Police officials attributed the rise to more proactive strategies targeting thieves, such as leaving iPads on planes in a sting to catch contract workers stealing electronics.

Monroe’s memo also said that several deficiencies remain in security at Charlotte Douglas. The CMPD chief said airport police officers, security guards and operations staff need more training in recognizing suspicious packages and behavior.

CMPD is trying to improve the airport’s camera systems, and needs access to other agencies’ cameras, including cameras belonging to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration.

Monroe said he hopes the airport cameras can start recording digitally, which can improve picture quality.

Patrolling the airport’s 19-mile perimeter, some of which isn’t accessible by road and is covered in vegetation, is difficult, Monroe said. CMPD has coped by patrolling with all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and helicopters.

Monroe said CMPD needs to be more visible in outlying airport properties, such as parking lots, and that officers should be stationed permanently within sight of security checkpoints.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter @ESPortillo
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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