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Boost the NYPD’s role at JFK and LaGuardia airports

Passengers duck for cover at immigration control as

Passengers duck for cover at immigration control as police search for an active shooter at Kennedy Airport. in Queens on Aug. 14, 2016. Port Authority police evacuated at least two terminals. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / BRIGITTE DUSSEAU

New Yorkers will have Usain Bolt to thank.

A broadcast of the Jamaican sprinter’s victory at the Olympics on Aug. 14 precipitated a loud celebration in a Kennedy Airport restaurant, which in turn led to panic and then to reports on social media and via 911 that shots had been fired in Terminal 8.

There was no shooter that night, but chaos followed. Port Authority police officers ran to the scene with guns drawn, Transportation Security Administration agents fled in fear, and thousands of passengers dashed to the exits. The havoc exposed massive holes in the airport’s safety and emergency response operations, and the inability of law enforcement and security personnel to lead, coordinate and communicate in a crisis.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo described it as “a wake-up call.” It’s really a screaming need for an overhaul of airport security. A report on the incident by New York State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommended uniform procedures across agencies, better training of airport employees and TSA and private security officers, and a plan to deal with crises when passengers evacuate themselves without any instruction or help.

Those are all important steps Cuomo said he’d take — but they may not go far enough.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s police department handles law enforcement at several airports, including Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark. But in the many layers of airport security at Kennedy, some personnel lacked training or didn’t know how to respond or who was in charge. The NYPD plays a secondary role at Kennedy and LaGuardia and isn’t present at the airports permanently. That should change. The NYPD is trained and experienced in every type of crisis, from terrorism to active shooters. It must have a more dominant role. Political roadblocks are significant when dealing with the city, state and the Port Authority, which means New Jersey has a say, but the NYPD could take the lead in airport security. To start, the NYPD should establish a constant presence at the airports, even at times of calm, and should have the tools to coordinate the response in emergencies. A dedicated task force would help.

Kennedy lacks a singular command center to coordinate security operations, which was another problem during the Aug. 14 incident. As the report suggests, it’s absolutely critical that one be established. But a central command location also has to coordinate with individual security operations in each terminal. In some cases, the office that oversees a certain terminal isn’t even based in that terminal. That’s unacceptable. Communication between private or federal security officers and law enforcement, with airport staff and the public, also was lacking in August and requires reform. It could help, for example, to find ways to reach all employees and patrons in a terminal through texting or social media.

This time, it was just a reaction to the fastest man in the world on a track in Brazil. Next time, it could be an actual threat. A streamlined, coordinated response from all levels of law enforcement and security personnel is what’s best for our airports, and for the thousands of passengers who move through them each day.

— The editorial board


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