Investigators exclusive: Armed security lacking at New York area airports

Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Exclusive: Armed security lacking at area airports
Jim Hoffer has an Eyewitness News Investigators exclusive on the lack of armed security at New York area airports.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Last month, terrorists killed 42 people at the airport in Turkey, while an attack in March at Brussels Airport left 32 dead.

It is clear that ISIS has airports in their crosshairs, so the Eyewitness News Investigators spent several days looking at security at all three New York-area airports. We specifically focused on security where crowds are -- the screening checkpoints -- and armed officers.

Our first stop was at Newark Liberty's massive Terminal C, where during a 60-minute visit, we never saw a single armed police officer nor any National Guard member near the terminal's three checkpoints.

There were plenty of uniformed TSA screeners, but they are not armed.

From downstairs at the crowded baggage pickup to the long security lines upstairs, we never saw an armed officer patrolling the terminal's front-end, and we observed the same lack of security at Terminal A's three checkpoints.

Compare that to the heavily-armed and visible security we found at New York City's Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, and the difference is stunning. And that lack of armed security at Newark Liberty's front door was just one week after the deadly airport terrorist attack in Turkey.

It worries the Port Authority Police Union, too.

"My understanding is that the staffing has returned to what it was prior to the attack in Turkey," union chief Frank Conti said.

The only requirement for security at New York's three major airports is that an armed law enforcement officer must be able to respond to a passenger checkpoint within five minutes. But in an emergency, mere seconds can cost lives.

"It could be a difference between life and death if heaven forbid some serious active shooter or some type of breech being attempted at the checkpoint," Conti said. "Five minutes is an eternity, and if those officers are tied up, it may be five minutes plus."

The response time seemed to be strained at LaGuardia, too, where we looked at eight screening checkpoints and found armed police or National Guard at only three. The other checkpoints had no armed security.

At JFK, security was more visible, but still uneven. There was one armed Port Authority police officer near the checkpoint at the JetBlue Terminal, plus National Guard soldiers. At Terminal 1, there were National Guard members, but no Port Authority police.

New York Congressman Eliot Engel says the current five-minute response requirement is unacceptable, because it gives the terrorist a running start.

"Seems like a no-brainer," he said. "In five minutes, how many people can be dead?"

Engel is proposing that the 30 largest airports be required to have an armed officer within 300 feet of every checkpoint.

"Just the way you were scratching your head when you didn't see anybody at Newark Airport, this seems to be logical," he said. "You wonder why it wasn't implemented sooner. That's why we are putting it into law, because if we need to mandate it. But it needs to be done."

The Port Authority says they've added high-visibility patrols equipped with tactical weapons at its three major airports since the Brussels and Turkey attacks. A spokesman says they've significantly increased the number of officers within each terminal, and that they continue to partner with federal, state and local law enforcement partners on counter-terrorism efforts.