Jan. 16--About 20 police officers assigned to patrol Charlotte Douglas International Airport will likely lose their status as sworn law enforcement on March 28 and become unarmed security officers, following a years-long dispute over who should control airport police.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department took over airport policing in 2012, over the objections of former aviation director Jerry Orr. City officials said it was necessary to increase security, while Orr said security was fine and the move needlessly increased costs.
Wednesday night, legacy airport police officers were told that if they don't complete a formal transfer process to CMPD, they will become airport security officers, according to a lawyer representing some of the officers.
The transfer process from airport police to CMPD involves going through the department's cadet school. About half the roughly 40 officers who were formerly airport police have begun or plan to go through the transfer process, and will not be switched to security officers.
CMPD spokesmen Rob Tufano and Capt. Brian Cunningham did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The issue of who should control airport police has been a festering point in the larger dispute over whether the city or a new, state-run regional commission should run Charlotte Douglas. That dispute is still tied up in court following a legislative battle that stretched through most of last year. For now, the airport remains an independently-funded city department reporting to City Manager Ron Carlee.
The idea of CMPD taking full control of airport police first surfaced after the death of 16-year-old North Mecklenburg High School student Delvonte Tisdale in 2010. He was found dead outside of Boston, under a flight path for approaching planes.
Massachusetts authorities and a CMPD investigation concluded Tisdale had likely breached Charlotte airport security and stowed away inside a jet's wheel well, falling as the plane lowered its landing gear.
Charlotte City Council decided to transfer control of airport police from Orr to the CMPD. The transfer became official on Dec. 15, 2012.
In August 2013, more than a dozen legacy airport officers sued Charlotte and CMPD over the transfer. They claimed they were being paid as much as $20,000 less than their CMPD counterparts for doing the same job duties. The case is still pending.
The move angered Orr, who called the switch a "debacle" in an internal email. It also led to months of bickering and infighting between airport and police officials over issues such as whether CMPD had enough access to airport security cameras.
The airport said the switch would increase costs, from $2.6 million in fiscal 2012 to an estimated $5.5 million in 2013. That concerned US Airways, the airport's biggest tenant, according to emails obtained by the Observer.
"A fundamental question that must be answered will be 'what will be the cost to US?" a US Airways manager wrote in 2012 to Charlotte's assistant finance director. Charlotte Douglas is one of the lowest-cost airports in the country for airlines to use, and increases to its budget could be borne in part by the airlines through increased user fees.
Under the city's new airport security plan, sworn CMPD officers would continue to patrol Charlotte Douglas and perform law enforcement functions, such as drug interdiction and arrests. The non-sworn security officers would perform security functions such as door alarm checks.
Under the plan, some could actually see their base salaries increase, according to a person who was present at Wednesday's meeting. However, as non-law enforcement officers, they would lose the more generous retirement contributions and pension benefits law enforcement officers receive.
The airport's security agreement with CMPD has not been formally unveiled. But interim aviation director Brent Cagle said last month that the plan has been tentatively agreed on, and would be implemented in the first quarter this year.