Broward County

After airport shooting exposes weaknesses, Broward leaders grapple with what to do next

SWAT teams and police poured into the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to respond to a mass shooting Jan. 6.
SWAT teams and police poured into the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to respond to a mass shooting Jan. 6. Miami Herald

The mass shooting at the airport in Broward County has raised several questions about security, but government officials who met Tuesday said it will take time to reach conclusions about any long-term changes related to firearms in airports, paying for more security or other measures to protect passengers.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat whose district includes the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, said one of the key questions is whether the U.S. should continue the policy of allowing guns in checked baggage. Wasserman Schultz met with law enforcement, aviation and government officials at the Broward Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday to discuss airport security. The meeting was closed to the public, but officials also held a press conference after the meeting.

“There was no professional who was in the room today that said, ‘Oh, we definitely should continue to allow firearms to be checked in baggage traveling on airplanes,’” Wasserman Schultz said. “No one said that. In fact, there was pretty universal consensus that it needs to be addressed.”

Diane Haggerty, witnessed the shooting that killed five people at Fort Lauderdale International Airport last Friday, she recounts the events during a memorial service at Terminal 2 where the incident took place.

When asked if the Transportation Security Administration wants to change the policy that allows guns checked in baggage, TSA Chief of Operations Gary Rasicot said “any changes to that I defer to the congresswoman and her colleagues.”

Providing more airport security comes at a price.

“We are all about saving dollars and we all have budgets, but I think we should be more about saving lives,” Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said during the press conference. “Whatever we need to make Broward County safe I will be asking for that money soon.”

Passengers can be seen on the Fort Lauderdale International airport's tarmac following a shooting on Jan. 6, 2017.

In an interview with the Herald, Israel said that it cost his agency about $300,000 to respond to the Jan. 6 shooting. Additionally, it will cost BSO about $100,000 a month in overtime to provide more security, he said.

“I will be going to the county asking to finance that bill,” he said.

Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief said in an interview that she had not heard that dollar amount from Israel and said until the county completes an after-action report, it can’t determine whether overtime is needed. That in-depth review could take several weeks, if not months. A 99-page report about the 2013 shooting at the Los Angeles International Airport was released about four and a half months after the shooting.

Many officials expressed caution about reaching any conclusions about long-term security changes or bills that should be filed in Congress until such reviews are completed.

The county pays the Broward Sheriff's Office about $17 million a year to provide security at the airport. The money comes from fees paid by airlines and vendors and covers the cost for 116 full-time employees. Israel and U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio have sought federal money to help cover the cost of responding to the shooting.

The shooting exposed weaknesses in airport security: areas outside of screening checkpoints, including baggage claim.

Federal rules allow airline passengers to transport unloaded firearms as checked baggage in a locked hard-sided container.

Jeffrey A. Slotnick, president of the security firm Setracon that does risk assessments for airports, told the Miami Herald that there have been very few shooting incidents in areas such as baggage claims or ticketing counters nationwide. Most airports, which were built decades ago, were designed not with security foremost but rather to move people as quickly as possible to their gates and from baggage claim to vehicles.

“Until we design airports for security as well as customers’ convenience, anything you do will be an obstruction and very expensive,” he said.

Bennet Waters, a former TSA and Homeland Security official who now works for the risk management firm The Chertoff Group, said that it’s not possible to protect people from every potential threat.

“It is less about the weapon that came out of checked baggage off a carousel than, what are appropriate steps that can be taken to eliminate the majority of threats?” he told the Herald. “Unless you want to capitulate to an almost police state it’s very difficult to prevent a lone-wolf attacker who is determined to carry out a specific attack in a generally public place where people gather peacefully.”

Suspected gunman Esteban Santiago is expected to be indicted later this month on murder charges in the fatal shooting of five people.