The battle over the Charlotte airport took an internal twist Friday when more than a dozen longtime airport police officers sued the city, claiming they are paid less and treated differently than other officers doing the same job.
The 14 officers worked for years as part of a separate airport police force under then-Aviation Director Jerry Orr. In November 2012, however, the City Council voted to put Charlotte Douglas International Airport security in the hands of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
That decision infuriated Orr and contributed to a bitter fight between the city and the state legislature over airport control, a struggle now before the courts and the federal government.
In their lawsuit, the airport police say they have become “pawns” in that fight. They claim the city has broken promises made before CMPD took over airport security by cutting their pay and rank, and by refusing to recognize their years of previous service.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Luke Largess, the Charlotte attorney who represents them. “People hired to do the same job at the same rank, with the same license, comparable experience, should be paid the same for doing the work.
“So they have a double pay plan now. A pay plan for CMPD officers and a pay plan for people who worked at the airport for Orr.”
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Friday he hadn’t read the complaint and couldn’t comment on the lawsuit.
The change in airport policing took place after investigators said they believe a Charlotte teenager breached security and climbed inside a wheel well on a jet bound for Boston. His body was found near Boston, on the flight path to Logan Airport. The addition of CMPD officers to the existing Charlotte Douglas force more than doubled airport security costs to $5.5 million.
Orr called the change a “debacle.” Legislators called it meddling, and said it was a major reason they wanted to take the airport from city control.
According to the lawsuit, the veteran airport officers have been caught in the crossfire.
They say they met with Police Chief Rodney Monroe and were promised that “all officers would be treated equally based on their education, training and experience.”
However, the consolidated pay plan, which is based in part on years of service, did the opposite, the suit claims.
The allegations in the lawsuit include:
• The pay plan doesn’t give the 14 officers credit for their years under Orr even though they have comparable training and experience.
• Two of the officers, James Wilson and Timothy Parker, who were lieutenants under Orr, were demoted to sergeant and are being paid $20,000 less than a CMPD sergeant assigned after the consolidation to be an airport police supervisor.
• The 14 don’t qualify for bonuses available to CMPD officers based on education and training.
• They must work for a year before receiving Civil Service protection.
According to Largess, all the airport officers have to apply to CMPD for a position to move to the CMPD pay plan, with no guarantee that they will keep their airport job. Those whose only law enforcement experience has been at the airport must go through the Police Academy and start as a new recruit.
The suit claims that the officers’ constitutional rights have been violated. It calls for the consolidated pay plan to be thrown out, and asks the judge to order a new merger of CMPD and the airport departments.
It also seeks lost wages and compensatory damages for “distress and anxiety.”
Staff writers Jim Morrill and Steve Harrison contributed.
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