Airport gun rules tested at hearing

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on September 2, 2006.

Jacksonville International Airport's rules for law enforcement personnel boarding planes with handguns are "extremely confusing," according to an arbitrator hearing the first official grievance filed by a Jacksonville Aviation Authority police officer.

Among the signs of the confusion pointed out by arbitrator Audrey Moran: the chief of the airport police not following federal regulations when flying armed, a practice that once resulted in the chief being pulled off a plane in order to complete necessary paperwork.

The arbitration proceeding, which the union won Thursday, was sparked when airport police officer Brady Ward allowed a Florida Department of Law Enforcement officer to carry a gun past the security checkpoint after checking his badge but without determining if the FDLE officer had airline-issued paperwork required to carry a gun on a plane.

Ultimately, the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration investigated the incident, a level of involvement not seen in other incidents that, according to both the Fraternal Order of Police lodge Ward belongs to and police executives, resulted in tougher scrutiny of Ward's actions.

Federal regulations allow state and local law enforcement officers to fly while armed only if they present a letter from their organization to the airline and receive permission. The officer should then present the letter to the airport police officer at the security checkpoint and sign a logbook before proceeding to the plane.

The FDLE officer Ward let through didn't have a letter from his agency or permission from the airline.

During the hearing, Ward's attorney Tad Delegal admitted that the officer had erred in not checking the paperwork. His punishment - a 30-day suspension - was overly harsh, though, the attorney said, because the Aviation Authority has failed to discipline other officers who didn't follow the federal law.

A main instance Delegal pointed to was in 2005 when Chief Sedrick Rivers boarded a plane while carrying the correct paperwork but without going through the security checkpoint or signing the logbook. A TSA officer who noticed him going on the plane alerted his supervisor, and Rivers had to return to take care of the paperwork.

At the time, according to exhibits presented during the hearing, the logbook said airport police officers did not have to sign in before flying armed, although the TSA says they do. The notice on the logbook has since been removed.

It's unclear how often airport police officers travel while armed or how many of them bypass the security checkpoint to do so.

During the arbitration hearing, Rivers said that going to conferences was reason enough to bring a gun. "If I'm flying on official business, I'm authorized to carry my firearm," he said, adding: "There's no greater joy in the world than a pilot seeing there's another armed law enforcement officer on board."

However, when Lt. Paul Kemp, the department's second in command, testified, he said that on one trip to Miami for a training conference, he didn't fly armed although he could have. According to the former chief of the airport police Gloria Smith, officers were only to fly armed when they could "in good conscience say I needed my gun between point A and point B."

More importantly, Smith said, all officers who were flying armed had to check in before flying.

"I cannot believe anyone thinks you can bypass the checkpoint," she said. "You cannot fly without going through the checkpoint."

The Aviation Authority will review its policies and make sure they are clear to everyone, said Michael Stewart, spokesman for the authority.

During his testimony, Rivers said "policies will be rewritten."

Meanwhile, Ward, the officer whose suspension led to the arbitration, will be paid for the 30 days he was suspended and have his discipline reduced to a written warning.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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