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Removal of United passenger shines light on airport police

John Slater, a United Airlines vice president, testifies at a City Council committee hearing in Chicago on Thursday, April 13, 2017. Slater said that bumping passengers to accommodate airline employees happens infrequently, and that federal guidelines requiring rest for crew members made it necessary to get the employees on the United flight in which Dr. David Dao was dragged from on Sunday. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)

CHICAGO (AP) — A tense, three-hour hearing Thursday about what happened to a passenger dragged from his seat on a United flight exposed confusion even among Chicago city officials about the duties of the little-known police force at the center of the embarrassing episode — and warnings it likely will be overhauled.

In the middle of a tense exchange, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans tried to correct one alderman when he referred to the officers as police. Alderman Edward Burke retorted that the state of Illinois recognizes them as exactly that.

Evans said the officers were ordered in January to take the word “Police” off their jackets in favor of “Security,” but that nobody followed through. Millions of people saw the word “Police” on the officers’ jackets in the video of Kentucky physician David Dao being dragged off the jet.

There was even confusion among officers about their duties. Jeff Redding, the deputy commissioner of security for the aviation department, said officers are instructed not to board planes unless there’s an imminent threat.

The confusion about the security force starts with the fact that airport security in Chicago is handled differently than it is in other big cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis. Those cities have sworn, armed airport police officers.

The United flight incident shined a spotlight on Chicago’s aviation police. The city has about 200 armed city police officers stationed at the airports along with about 300 aviation officers.

The aviation officers work for the city but not the Police Department, and they earn between $50,000 and $88,000 a year. They are trained at the Police Department academy, but not for as long a period as cadets that become city police officers. They don’t carry guns, though before Sunday night some aldermen were pushing to allow the officers to carry guns.

That proposal now has virtually no chance of passing, according to Alderman Mike Zalewski, the chair of the council’s aviation committee, and the future of the force itself is in question.

“I would be shocked if there is not going to be major changes,” he said.

Alderman Chris Taliaferro, who was pushing the ordinance, was even more succinct, saying what happened Sunday “really has put it (the airport police force) at risk.”

If the aviation department’s police force disbands it would bring to an end a decidedly Chicago story. The police force was started decades ago when the long-running Mayor Richard J. Daley allowed the chief of his bodyguard detail to retire and start an airport security force manned by people who, according to Zalewski, knew the right people at City Hall.

Even if the force survives, Burke suggested the officers’ job won’t be the same.

“Chicago employees should not be doing the dirty work for the Friendly Skies airline,” he said.

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This story has been corrected to show that Richard J. Daley allowed the chief of his bodyguard detail to retire and start an airport security force, not Richard M. Daley.

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