Sorting out security at the Yakima airport

A snafu over what kind of guards can be used at the Yakima Air Terminal has left it without armed on-site security.

Although federal Transportation Security Administration personnel are still checking bags and passengers at the airport's security checkpoint, private armed guards posted there for the past five years were removed Jan. 4.

Security has since been limited to a "timed response program," according to airport assistant manager Jerry Kilpatrick, which essentially means airport staff will call police if there's trouble.

"This has not jeopardized the public's safety at all," Kilpatrick said. "We used the timed response program for many years before the TSA was ever formed.

"Just because there's not somebody in the building doesn't mean there isn't somebody real close there is a police substation within walking distance," he said, referring to the Yakima Police Department's substation about 200 yards west of the terminal.

Kilpatrick said the situation exists because TSA officials in Washington, D.C., refused pay for security after learning that the private security officers used by the airport lacked the power to arrest.

A TSA official confirmed the account.

"If the airport wants to have armed security without police powers, they can do that, but the fact is, they won't get reimbursed by the TSA," said Los Angeles TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.

Yakima airport security had been handled by Corporate Security Enforcement, a local company that had five guards on rotation for two daily eight-hour shifts.

"This has been a major impact on our revenue," said Corporate assistant manager Jim Hill. "There's going to be three people losing their jobs here this week."

When asked about his guards not having arrest powers, Hill said, "That was never an issue.

"If it got to that point, we called the police department, but that was very rare," he said.

Kilpatrick estimates the armed security costs $133,000 a year and says the airport can't afford that on its own. He said he's trying to get the TSA to re-evaluate the situation.

In the meantime, off-duty Yakima police officers have offered their services. The Yakima Police Patrolmen's Association said up to 75 officers so far are more than willing to work at whatever price the airport is willing to pay.

"It would be beneficial to our members, it would be beneficial to the airport and it would be beneficial to the public if we were there," said Officer Rich Fowler, YPPA negotiator. "If you have a police officer there, we can take care of whatever is happening on the spot."

Kilpatrick said he likes the idea. But he questioned how a contract could be developed with off-duty officers and whether liability insurance, similar to what the security company offered, would be available.

Fowler said the city's insurance already covers officers during off-duty work, and that the union would accept lower than standard rates.

Yakima police worked at the airport when the National Guard left following their posting after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They worked there for two years until the TSA said the costs were too high, according to Kilpatrick. At the time, officers were working on overtime at $50 to $70 per hour.

Kilpatrick said the private security they hired was paid about $30 an hour, but TSA is now cutting that reimbursement amount down to $20 to $25 an hour.

Whatever the costs are, Fowler said, officers are willing to accept them in exchange for consistent off-duty work. And he points out that they probably would have been willing to accept less in the first place.

"No one ever came to us and asked if we were willing to work at the airport for less money," he said. "I worked there back then, and I can tell you that we would have done it no problem."