Nearly 300 aviation security officers have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, claiming they were unfairly stripped of their law enforcement background after a passenger was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight last year.
Since 1993, the Chicago Aviation Police have been recognized by the state as law enforcement officers. Though they didn’t carry firearms, the officers were required to graduate from the Chicago Police Academy or the Cook County Sheriff’s Training Academy. They were sworn in as law enforcement officers by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, and they wore uniforms marked “police.”
With state-sanctioned law enforcement officer status, they could supplement their incomes working part time as police officers in other jurisdictions, join other law enforcement agencies without retraining and get perks based on seniority.
In Wednesday’s complaint, attorneys representing the security officers say those privileges became a casualty of political pressure brought on by a highly publicized incident in April 2017, when passengers captured video of Dr. David Dao being dragged off of an overbooked United flight at O’Hare International Airport.
In the following months, city Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said aviation officers “are not the designated law enforcement authority at our airports,” and the state board notified Chicago officials that aviation security was no longer observed as a law enforcement agency. The state subsequently removed its officers from its registry of law enforcement officers.
Attorneys representing the security officers acknowledged the city and state’s right to strip an agency’s policing powers. However, they argue that action can’t expunge the security officers’ work histories, because, in doing so, that would deny them job prospects and potential earnings.
“This feels personal,” Julio Dones, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s about identity. I gave years in service to the City and that’s being taken away from me and denied. I did everything that was asked and expected of me. But because of one incident that didn’t even involve me, 290 officers like me are losing the most valuable things we have: our reputations and experience.”
That litigation was filed one day after another lawsuit from a Chicago aviation security officer who was fired after he was captured on video dragging Dao from United flight.
James Long’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County Court, names defendants including the city, Evans and United, and makes a broad range of claims related to his firing.
On April 9, 2017, aviation security officers, including Long, were called to a United flight for a passenger who refused to give up his seat. The responding officers approached Dao, and tried to persuade him to leave calmly, after which Dao told them, “I’m not leaving this flight that I paid money for. I don’t care if I get arrested,” according to the lawsuit.
Video taken by other passengers showed Long dragging Dao from the plane. Dao’s mouth was bloodied from hitting his head on an armrest during the altercation, according to court documents.
Long and three other aviation security officers were placed on administrative leave pending the conclusion of a disciplinary investigation. In August, Long was fired, the complaint says.
Long’s lawsuit asserts that United should have known calling in the security officers would “require the use of physical force.” Long completed five months of police recruit training program, but the lawsuit says the Department of Aviation didn’t provide training on the “level of force continuum.”
“But for the CDA’s negligence and failure to train (Long) how to respond to an escalating situation with an Airline Passenger, (he) would not have acted in the manner he did, which resulted in his termination,” the lawsuit says.
The suit also alleges that Evans defamed Long. The lawsuit mentions social media posts and statements to news outlets in which Evans condemned the actions of security officers as “completely inappropriate” and added the department does not “arm security staff for good reasons.”
The CDA and Evans “acted with malice and with the intention to harm, and recklessly disregarded (Long’s) rights and the consequences that may result to him by failing to investigation the truth of Defendant Evans’s oral and written statements about Long,” the complaint says.
Long is seeking damages because of his termination, including back pay and payments to his 401(k)-retirement plan.