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3 Things to Know About the Officers in the United Airlines Fiasco

The 300-member unarmed airport police force is facing national scrutiny after officers dragged a passenger off a United flight.

Videos from passengers aboard a United Airlines flight Sunday night showed the incident.   Screenshots: Tyler_bridges/Twitter

In an era of intense public scrutiny toward police officers, aviation police are getting their turn at the viral news reel. This weekend, an aviation police officer at O’Hare was captured on video dragging a man out of his seat on a United Airlines flight. The videos, which have received millions of views and fed outrage across the country, show the man’s bloodied face as other passengers exclaim in fear. One officer has been suspended thus far.

But how exactly does the Department of Aviation’s safety force work, and what are its responsibilities? Here is some context.

1. The officers were Chicago Aviation Police, not from the Chicago Police Department.

Chicago police officers have been in the national news often lately, especially after the 2014 killing of teenager Laquan McDonald and the subsequent Department of Justice investigation that revealed major civil rights abuses—including using unconstitutional force—against black and brown communities.

However, they are not the same as the officers that boarded United flight 3411. They are under the jurisdiction of the Chicago Department of Aviation, the administrative body of Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports. Officers play “an important, supplementary role in keeping [Chicago airports] safe by overseeing access points,” Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer said in 2016.

2. In fact, the two departments have had their disagreements.

A high-profile incident in 2015 set the scene for a dustup between the two agencies. A CPD officer noticed an aviation officer wearing an empty gun holster at O’Hare; aviation police aren’t allowed to carry firearms on the job, so the Chicago cop allegedly detained the aviation officer, questioned him, and searched his vehicle.

Aviation officers were incensed about the “breach of confidence,” according to statements from their union rep, who implied the aviation cop had been treated "like [a] common criminal.” CPD, for its part, asserted its jurisdiction as “the only policing authority at the airport that can be armed with a gun.”

3. The Aviation Police have been arguing that they need to be armed.

The CPD dustup was salt in the wound for aviation officers who have been asking to carry firearms for some time now. There’s even a proposed ordinance at City Hall to arm them, which states, “Because [aviation police officers] are unarmed, when they encounter an armed individual, they must request assistance from a Chicago police officer. Furthermore, there is a standing order that in the event of an active shooter, [aviation police officers] are to ‘run and hide,’ which is contrary to what police are trained to do.”

Last year, a union rep told NBC5 that aviation officers were required to train and qualify to use weapons that they were not allowed to use. Officers were trained by the CPD academy and required to re-qualify annually, the union rep said. But as Fran Spielman the Sun-Times reports, having some of these officers drag a paying customer off a plane, bloodied, certainly won’t help their cause.

The union, SEIU Local 73, said in a statement:

The incident that occurred on United Flight 3411 was an unfortunate one. We are aware the Chicago Department of Aviation is investigating the incident, and we will reserve further comment until the investigation is completed.

There are more than 300 Aviation Officers who serve and protect the thousands of passengers at O’Hare and Midway Airport every day. These men and women risk their lives to protect the public all while not having every safety tool available in the case of an extreme emergency at one of Chicago’s airports.

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