They weren’t dressed like police, but they didn’t look much like protesters, either.
Still, the men standing outside Dulles and National airports last Wednesday, dressed in jeans, baseball caps and jackets, were both police and protesters.
They carried neither placards nor badges. Instead, members of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) Police Department handed out bright orange fliers on Nov. 27, outlining the issues that left them spending their free time at work: salary, staffing and training.
Police stood outside doors at National, just inside at Dulles, handing out their fliers to travelers heading home for the Thanksgiving weekend. It was subdued, as protest actions go, with only four police at each airport, spread across four different entrances.
Despite the rush of holiday travelers, people were taking the fliers and reading them, one policeman and union member said. "Everyone’s been pretty cool. The only feedback we’ve had has been positive."
<b>SALARY IS THE</b> union’s biggest concern, said Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, the MWAA police union.
Airport police come in earning the same as their colleagues in other local police departments, he said, but annual pay increases are less than in other departments, and salaries run lower and lower compared with those of colleagues in other agencies with the same amount of experience.
"The pay scale doesn’t reflect how they’re doing their job," said Roberts.
Uneven salaries add to the MWAA Police Department’s other big problem, he said. If police know they will get paid more in other departments, they will come to the MWAA force for training and a little experience, then transfer to another job.
"It’s not just their pay," he said. "It also means attrition in the department."
It turns the airport department into a kind of starter police force, he said, with lots of new recruits and few experienced officers. To combat the problem, Roberts said, the Airport Authority needs to focus on increasing pay levels, increasing training, and pulling more and better recruits into the Department’s academy.
Authority heads hope to do that, said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Authority, and they want to keep meeting with the police union about the process. "Every public safety organization since Sept. 11 has worked to meet the same challenges," she said. "It’s a constant struggle to attract personnel to law-enforcement agencies."
<b>"IT’S NOT PARTICULARLY</b> after Sept. 11," said Ken Dennis, head of ACOP, the Arlington police union. He has been seeking solutions to the same problems the airport police are confronting, and they are long-term issues, he said.
However, the Authority’s solution to salaries has only addressed short-term needs, so far. "Increasing salaries on the front end is good," Dennis said. "But it’s not necessarily good for maintaining personnel. They need to take care of those who have been there for many years."
In Arlington, union heads had sought increases across the pay scales for years, he said, with little luck. But in the past two years, the County Board has improved salaries and benefits, meeting the needs of county officers.
Hamilton said that some salary increases will come for airport police in the year to come. "There’s been a pay increase in general, for all employees, every year," she said.
<b>IF MORE ATTENTION</b> and effort don’t come for union needs, Roberts said, the union will have to approach things from a different angle.
"We’re going to wait for the first of the year, after Congress reorganizes," he said. "Then we’re going to look at various people who will have leadership positions in relation to transportation safety" and start lobbying for more money directed to airport police departments.
Federal funds appropriated after Sept. 11 went to local police departments and to airports, he said, but little of that money found its way to airport police. Dulles and National are the airports in Congress’s back yard, but the problems there are indicative of what’s going on at the national level. "It would behoove Congress to look at airport police departments around the country and see if they’re getting adequate support," said Roberts.
"There’s a heavy emphasis being put on the Transportation Security Agency [TSA] and the Homeland Security Department," he said. "Those are real sexy items to talk about. But the real blue-shirt personnel are not getting any attention."
Officers from the TSA may be more visible in airports these days, he said. But they are not police officers, and if they run into problems, they have to call police to make an arrest. Airport officers will be the first to respond in that case, the real front line, Roberts said, and that’s why there needs to be serious investment into their departments.