About 20 police officers assigned to the airport will likely have to give up their badges and guns March 28 and become unarmed security officers, the latest chapter in a yearslong dispute over who should control airport police.
The issue has been a sore spot in the larger battle over whether the city or a new regional commission should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police assumed control of the airport police force in December 2012. While city officials said CMPD was needed to increase security, opponents said the city was meddling and the move would needlessly increase costs.
City officials said the change announced Thursday will increase overall security by splitting the law enforcement and “corporate security” jobs at the airport. CMPD officers will still patrol airport grounds and outside the terminal’s checkpoints, while the new unarmed security officers will be assigned to tasks such as responding to door alarms and assisting passengers.
But some airport police officers are upset. Fourteen of the “legacy” airport police officers already sued the city last year, claiming they are paid less than their CMPD counterparts for doing the same job.
Airport police officers were told of the decision at a meeting Wednesday night. Luke Largess, the officers’ attorney, said in a legal filing that the move is “a punitive loss in professional status.” He was preparing a legal motion Thursday seeking to block the move.
Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said while he understands why some might object to losing their status as sworn officers, the new security jobs are important.
“I believe that it is also a very prestigious position to be an airport safety officer,” Cagle said. “Those officers are responsible for helping to ensure the safety and security of 100,000 passengers daily. They are absolutely mission-critical.”
CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano said in an emailed statement that the department “fully supports” the airport’s new security model.
The dispute over airport police goes back to the November 2010 death of Delvonte Tisdale, a 16-year-old North Mecklenburg High School student. CMPD and Massachusetts authorities concluded he likely fell from a plane on approach to Boston Logan after breaching security at Charlotte Douglas and stowing away inside a jet’s wheel well.
CMPD recommended that the city assume control of the airport police, which had been a separate department reporting to former Aviation Director Jerry Orr. Despite Orr’s vehement opposition – he called the switch a “ debacle” – the City Council voted to transfer the airport police to CMPD.
Now, Cagle said up to 35 airport security officers will be hired to work at Charlotte Douglas behind the checkpoints. They will handle basic security functions and can call CMPD officers for backup. Tentative plans call for up to 45 CMPD officers to patrol the rest of the airport property.
The new plan will not increase costs, Cagle said.
Not all officers at the airport are affected by the switch. About half of the roughly 40 officers who were formerly airport police have begun or plan to go through the transfer process to become CMPD officers.
Although the remaining airport police still have the option to transfer to CMPD, many of them would have to go back through cadet school, according to legal filings. Others would also lose specialized status, such as canine handlers, and be forced to become regular patrol officers.
Largess said officers who switch to CMPD under the current conditions risk “permanent second-class status as police officers.”
Orr, a taciturn manager known for his blunt style, still looms large in discussions of the airport. An account of Wednesday’s meeting with the airport police officers said Cagle began with a critique of Orr.
“The interim director of the Airport opened the meeting with pejorative comments about the former airport director,” Largess wrote in court papers Thursday. “(Cagle) described how (Orr) referred to the facility as ‘my airport’ and attempted to exercise total control.”
Orr told the Observer on Thursday that he never told Cagle that Charlotte Douglas was his airport. “I think that’s kind of sad, if there’s any truth to it,” he said of Cagle’s alleged remark. Orr also called the new security plan “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Cagle said he was only telling a humorous story about Orr in his remarks to the officers. But he told the Observer he’s taken a more collaborative approach than Orr to relationships with those outside the airport.
“My focus has been on ensuring safety and security,” Cagle said. “I believe the best way to do that is to have strong partnerships with other departments and our business partners rather than have an adversarial relationship.”
The switch from airport to CMPD control led to months of bickering between officials over issues such as whether CMPD had enough access to airport security cameras, an Observer review of public records found.
The airport also said the switch would increase costs, from $2.6 million in fiscal 2012 to an estimated $5.4 million in 2013. That concerned US Airways, the airport’s biggest tenant, according to emails obtained by the Observer.
But Thursday, airport officials said the actual policing costs came in far lower than the estimates for 2013, totaling $3.1 million. That’s 42 percent below estimates. An airport spokeswoman directed questions about the discrepancy to CMPD. A CMPD spokesman said he would look into the question and respond Friday.
Lawsuit over pay
In their 2013 lawsuit over the transfer to CMPD, 14 legacy airport officers claimed they were being paid as much as $20,000 less than their CMPD counterparts for doing the same duties.
Those officers have all been told they will have to switch to unarmed security officers, Largess said. He wrote the city’s action is the result of “irrational retribution for the actions of the former Airport director (Orr) in attempting to wrest control and ownership of the Airport from the City.”
Under the new plan, some could actually see their base salaries increase slightly, said a person who was present at Wednesday’s meeting. However, as non-law enforcement officers, they would lose the more generous retirement contributions and pension benefits law enforcement officers receive.
That includes a 5 percent 401(k) contribution paid to law enforcement officers, a 20 percent retirement bonus, and civil service board protection for their jobs, Largess said.
The officers’ case is pending. The dispute over who will run Charlotte Douglas also is still tied up in court. For now, the airport remains an independently funded city department reporting to City Manager Ron Carlee.
Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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