Airport Police Get Federal Jurisdiction

Article excerpt

Repercussions from the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, off the coast of Long Island, were felt as far away as Detroit and Tampa. The Gore Commission, impaneled shortly after the crash and tasked with development of a plan to keep aircraft and passengers safe from terrorism, came up with several proposals. One proposal involved deputizing airport police as U.S. Marshals. In December 1998, Tampa International Airport's police force became the third airport in the country (after Detroit and Ft. Meyers, FL) to complete the U.S. Marshal program

Abusive behavior-everything from "road rage" to racial epitaphs-presents special challenges to police. In airports, where people are packed together, tensions and stress levels run high and alcohol is invariably added to an already combustible mix, making it especially difficult for police to operate.

Traditionally police units relied upon the authority of the uniform, cool-headed diplomacy and people's basic good natures to solve problems. But in the wake of ever-increasing worldwide violence and in anticipation of terrorist actions, Tampa International Airport's police force has some decidedly sharp, new teeth.

"At least 10-12 times a month, a pilot requests police response to one of the jetways," noted Lt. Jay Russel, shift commander of TIA's police force. "Many of the calls were alcohol-related or involved an abusive passenger," he pointed out. "Still, when in the air, we're talking about people's lives and their safety. For that reason, things that might not be as serious on the ground are sometimes considered federal crimes in the air.

"The only response we had available was to take the names of the players and forward the information on to the FBI," Russel said. "Even when we had something that interfered with the flight crew, possibly jeopardizing passenger safety, we really didn't have the jurisdiction to do much more than sort out the players and pass the information along to the FBI."

The new program, which is a model for the rest of the nation and conducted by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Marshal's Services, prepared the TIA officers to handle federal crimes pertaining to travel. The newly appointed U.S. Marshals have jurisdiction over crimes committed on aircraft, (including air piracy) interference with flight crews and the possession of weapons and explosives.

"The program is a win-win-win situation," explained FBI Special Agent Brian Kensel. "The TIA police force and the FBI benefit and so does the traveling public that uses the airport."

Lt. Russel, a member of a statewide terrorist network task force, was one of TIA's 17 officers selected to attend the training program. "Training is recurrent," Russel explained. "The first block involved federal law statutes that pertained to crimes aboard aircraft. …