File photo of the Long Beach Airport.

Any change to who oversees security at the Long Beach Airport will have to wait at least one more month after the City Council voted Tuesday night to postpone possibly integrating airport security into the Long Beach Police Department.

The issue has been been a focus of tension for years between the city and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a union representing over 2,000 city employees including officers at the airport.

The police department believes that having the special services officers who currently work at the airport, and report to the airport director, brought under the control of the department would streamline reporting process and potentially make the airport safer.

The union maintains the proposed integration would strip its security officers of training and arrest powers which could undermine the safety of travelers at the airport. Any vote to integrate is not expected to change the compensation for current airport security officers.

City Council may integrate airport security with police department, despite union pushback

Long Beach Police Department Chief Robert Luna said integrating the airport workers would not be unprecedented as the department currently has about 120 security officers working under the LBPD umbrella. If the council eventually moves forward with the plan it could bring another 27 officers under LBPD control.

“I would not be putting my name to something that I didn’t think was going to be advantageous to our entire community as far as safety goes,” Luna said. “The Long Beach Airport is ours and it is our intent to keep that safe 24/7.”

Luna focused on the 24-hour aspect of his comment, suggesting that the media had mischaracterized language in city documents by stating that LBPD officers, if the deal went through, would not be present at the airport at all hours.

Union representatives pointed to this in a rebuttal letter submitted to the council noting that airport security officers would be assigned to the airport from 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Combined with some of the security team’s arrest powers and reduced training under the proposed deal, the union said the vote could violate federal law that requires that law enforcement be present at the airport regardless of the time of day.

Richard Suarez, the western territory representative for IAM, said that the proposal would also replace rigorous state peace officer training with an insufficient amount of course time proposed by the police department, which could have negative impacts on safety and liability at Long Beach Airport.

“This is a training that was imposed by this city for these SSOs [special service officers],” Suarez said. “Taking that away, taking their authority away is an injustice and that we believe would be an issue of security. I believe that the airport is safe today but I don’t believe that the airport will be safe if you reduce training from 660 hours to 30-60 hours,”

Members of the public who spoke to the item were uncomfortable with the idea of the LBPD taking over leadership of airport security, with some stating that the presence of law enforcement could lead to some minority travelers feeling discomfort when passing through the airport and other unintended consequences.

James Suazo, a member of the Long Beach chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, pointed to a report that showed a disproportionate amount of arrests made by the department along the Metro Blue Line after it entered into a contract to police the line. While only patrolling about four miles of track in the 98-mile system the LBPD had logged over half of all arrests between July 2017 and September 2018.

Long Beach police responsible for over half of all Metro arrests since July 2017

He characterized the effort for the LBPD to take over as the supervising department as an orchestrated takeover that could damage the airport’s reputation for being one of the safest and most enjoyable travel experiences in the country.

“Knowing all of this, I can’t help but wonder why we would risk the reputation of our community asset and giving more authority to the city’s biggest liability,” Suazo said.

The item could be heard as soon as next month as a postponement was agreed to by the City Council while details about a vote could be worked out. While support for a possible integration of security at the airport could be divided when the item is brought back before the council, the image of the airport as safe and the current security presence that has kept it safe for the last four decades was unified.

“If we did not have a safe airport we would not have an airport,” said City Manager Pat West. “Our airport would be shut down so fast if we didn’t have an ability to provide safety. There’s no such thing as an unsafe airport. If you have an unsafe airport then the airport’s gone. You don’t have an airport.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.