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US lawmakers discuss attack at Los Angeles airport

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- U.S. lawmakers pressed airport and security officials Friday about problems responding to the Los Angeles International Airport shooting last year and said the incident illuminated similar gaps that needed to be addressed at airports across the nation.

The hearing at LAX before a House transportation security subcommittee was marked by pointed questions about preparedness and the deployment of officers after two recent reports were critical of airport security and the emergency response.

Before the hearing began, lawmakers and the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration retraced the gunman's steps through Terminal 3 and met with the widow of Officer Gerardo Hernandez, who was killed in the Nov. 1 attack targeting TSA officers. Two other officers and a passenger were also wounded.

The discussion at the hearing included the findings of a TSA report this week that reviewed security at nearly 450 airports nationwide.

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said the two recent reports exposed significant weaknesses in the ability of local and federal personnel to coordinate in an emergency - "weaknesses I suspect in other airports across the country."

Hudson said he plans to have a second hearing in Washington to ensure lessons are followed up on and applied nationally, and that a clear timetable is established for reforms.

Paul Ciancia is accused of targeting TSA officers in the attack, killing Hernandez and wounding two other officers and a passenger. The Pennsville, N.J., native has pleaded not guilty to 11 federal charges, including murder of a federal officer. Hernandez was the TSA's first line-of-duty death.

The TSA report made 14 recommendations to improve airport security, including more training on active shooter response; technological upgrades such as a greater number and more high-tech panic alarms at airports; and an armed law enforcement presence at checkpoints and ticket counters during peak hours.

Implementing many of the recommendations would be up to local airport operators.

Because airports are different, each is responsible for creating its own security plan that must be approved by TSA. The agency has general guidelines for airports, but the differences mean there's a lack of consistency in security provided to TSA officers, who aren't armed.

J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees which represents 45,000 TSA officers, said he was disappointed the hearing before the subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee concluded without a plan to improve checkpoint security. The union has renewed its call for the agency to create its own unit of armed law enforcement officers to ensure consistent security of its officers at airports.

"This is not a call for the arming of TSA officers," Cox told lawmakers. "Current law enforcement operations have gaps and inconsistencies that leave TSOs and passengers vulnerable."

Under federal law, the administrator of the TSA can designate its employees as law enforcement officers, which would allow them to carry weapons. Pistole, however, said during the hearing that he doesn't believe more guns at checkpoints are the answer.

"We're trying to protect against something that happened once, that may never happen again," he told The Associated Press after the hearing, adding that creating an armed unit of TSA officers would involve cost and logistical issues.

The report by Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, found that lapses in communication and coordination led to delays in responding to the gunman and providing aid to victims.

Both reports noted systemic flaws, but neither assigned responsibility to any person for failures that day.

The airport's review also didn't mention an earlier AP report that found the two armed airport police officers assigned to Terminal 3 were out of position when the shooting started without notifying dispatchers, as required by department policy. Nor did it mention the change in airport policy months before the shooting allowing officers to roam the terminal rather than be stationed at checkpoints.

Hudson pressed LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon on the locations of the two officers during questioning. Gannon acknowledged that they were outside the terminal when the shooting started and that one was on break without notifying dispatchers per department policy.

Gannon maintained that even with an airport police officer posted at the checkpoint, Hernandez's death could not have been prevented, and in some circumstances a fixed officer might be more vulnerable to an attack.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose area includes LAX, said the airport had more than enough resources to ensure checkpoints were properly protected, and she said she would be following up on the issue.

"I realize that a consistent presence (of armed law enforcement) at TSA screening checkpoints is controversial (but) a major airport like LAX can have police at every checkpoint and still have officers patrolling the airport," Waters said.

Hudson said Congress would continue to grapple with questions on how to improve security at airport checkpoints posed by the two reports and testimony Friday.

Associated Press, By: Tami Abdollah

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