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How the LAX shooting could change the status of TSA officers

As air travelers, we all love to gripe about the Transportation Security Administration over the constant barking in airport security lines to take out laptops and empty our pockets, the inconvenient 3-ounce liquid rule and, of course, those body scanners and pat-downs.

But when a shooter aimed an AR-15 at TSA officers at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 1, the resentment at the TSA quieted as colleagues, families and the public mourned the loss of a father and husband who wore a blue TSA shirt for the job.

TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez became the first TSA worker killed on the job in a violent attack that singled out the agency he worked for.

“The reality is that it took something like this for people to understand the risks we face,” said local TSA union president Victor Payes.

RELATEDSuspect in LAX airport shooting pleads not guilty

Payes said that, after the shooting, passengers offered condolences and were more patient during the cumbersome security procedures at checkpoints.

Airline passenger Patti De La Casas told KPCC that she now tries to be calm and friendly with TSA workers at the airport. She said she feels for them.

"I don’t think they probably get paid a whole lot more than people putting themselves in danger’s way but they have to carry the responsibility," De La Casas said.

Some of passenger patience and sympathy has worn off in the weeks since the tragedy, many TSA workers say. But the discussion over what role TSA officials play at airports and for the traveling public continues.

Immediately after the shooting at LAX, a public debate flared on the question of whether TSA officers should carry guns. The president of the union that represents them suggested there be a portion of TSA agents trained as law enforcement officers with weapons to be stationed at security checkpoints.

“At this time, we feel a larger and more consistent armed presence in screening areas would be a positive step in improving security for both TSOs and the flying public,” American Federation of Government Employees president David Cox said in a statement last month. “The development of a new class of TSA officers with law enforcement status would be a logical approach to accomplishing this goal.”

TSA union representatives believe language in the 2001 "Aviation and Transportation Security Act" that created the federal agency allows the TSA to hire or create a class of law enforcement officers without congressional approval.

Aviation experts and professionals cautioned against the idea. Some argued it would be too costly to manage a law enforcement unit at the TSA, which already includes the armed Federal Air Marshal Service. 

“There already is a very strong law enforcement element to TSA, and it’s called the Federal Air Marshals,” former TSA administrator Kip Hawley said. He pointed out that armed marshals patrol airports as they await their flights.  

Others argue that the TSA’s hiring criteria is too lax to recruit adequate law enforcement types.

RELATED: Full KPCC coverage of the shooting at LAX

Hawley was TSA administrator from 2005 to 2009. He said issuing guns to TSA officers — even only a portion of them — could distract them from their primary job at security checkpoints.

“I would argue actually it would diminish it by taking their time and focus away from a more important assignment— which is finding bombs,” he said.

It was during Haley's tenure that TSA workers were issued police-like uniforms and badges. Every TSA agent was pulled off the job to undergo two days of training on bomb detection and intelligence. Hawley said it was a way to garner respect from the government, from the public and to remind TSA workers that their job was serious and vital to national security.

To a lot of travelers, the uniform and badge implies that they are related to police. This is what Marshal McClain, head of the LAX airport police union, calls mission creep.

“The Transportation Security officers that were hired do not go through the same stringent academy that a local police officer would do, that a deputy sheriff would do,” McClain said.

Authorities allege accused gunman Paul Ciancia described his intention to harm TSA officers in a letter that was found on him. They say he called them “pig,” a common epithet for police officers.

But TSA officers are not cops. They don’t have guns. They don’t have arrest powers.

But at the public memorial for Gerardo Hernandez, TSA screener Lisandro Jimenez said he and his colleagues have something in common with law enforcement officers.

“We know what it feels like to go to work and not be certain if we will make it back home,” he said. Many TSA officers at the memorial expressed similar sentiments, calling it a sometimes thankless duty.

“There’s a very strong culture at TSA for the fact that these officers are out there on the front lines potentially risking their lives,” said Hawley.

When TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez's death was characterized as the first TSA officer to die “in the line of duty.” On Internet chat boards and forums, some law enforcement, military and other people debated the “line of duty” reference, a term traditionally used for police and service members who are killed on the job.

“That phrase used to be reserved for folks who died while putting themself in harm's way, as opposed to being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” wrote one person.

Others on the forum argued that there are all types of officers: police officers, probation officers, officers of the court, animal control officers, etc.

Jamaal Whitley, who’s stationed at the Army post Fort Irwin in the high desert of Southern California, said it didn’t bother him much.

“His job is a security job,” he said shugging his shoulders. “So he died doing his duty.”

But the unsettled “line of duty” debate could factor into whether the surviving Hernandez family will receive federal assistance from the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program.

Under this program, the families of any fallen law enforcement officer is eligible to apply for a death benefit claim to help with the loss of income. Survivors are eligible for a one-time payout of  $333,604, plus college scholarship money for the surviving children if they qualify and if they attend.

TSA workers are eligible for the same death benefits the survivors of federal employees receive, which are based off a formula on the employee’s monthly salary.

“Sadly, Friday, Nov. 1 marked the first incident where a TSA officer was killed in the line of duty,” TSA spokesperson Ross Feinstein said in a statement. “TSA is working closely with the Hernandez family and DOJ to determine eligibility for funds under the Public Safety Officers Benefits (PSOB) program.”

The PSOB program has awarded federal law enforcement survivor benefits to certain civilians in the past — including those who lost their lives serving as firefighters, chaplains working alongside law enforcement, and Federal Emergency Management Administration workers who died while working in declared disaster zones.

A representative from the PSOB program said the agency is in touch with the TSA regarding the program and how to file a claim for review.

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