Air Time

An NYPD detective's eye on crime.
Sept. 20 2001 11:30 PM

Air Time

Let's put a cop on every flight.

Like everyone else, I have been trying to think of steps that could be taken to prevent future airliner hijackings. Here's an easy suggestion that lies within conventional law enforcement: Place an armed police officer on nearly every commercial airplane. The attorney general has already announced an increase in the assignment of sky marshals to flights. But with over 35,000 flights a day, the nation's 4,000 U.S. marshals will be able to man only a small portion of the planes in the air. Other federal agencies would lend a hand, but even the FBI has only 11,500 agents. In contrast, this country has 700,000 police officers.

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This system would require training, clearance of a few legal hurdles, and a new coordination system, but those are relatively painless and inexpensive tasks. Other solutions proposed so far—replacing incompetent security guards, installing new passenger-identification technology—are expensive. Besides, most of these measures stop at the airport gate: If a terrorist slips past, the passengers and crew are completely exposed. This is why Israelis have, for years, placed an armed undercover agent on their flights.

Consider the approach taken by the Long Island Rail Road. In 1993, a passenger named Colin Ferguson shot 26 people, killing six of them, because of "black rage." Since then, police officers from New York have been able to take the train for free, identifying themselves to the conductors. There's already some precedent for a similar program on airlines: Right now, when a federal agent checks in for a commercial flight, he identifies himself and notifies the pilot that he is armed. With a little organization, we could build a system that would cover most major U.S. flights.

Cops are proficient in the use of firearms, which is what would be needed to face multiple hijackers armed with knives. It's harder to fight someone with a knife than you might think. I have been taught methods both in the police academy and in karate class: One can attack the knife-wielder when his arm is extended or use the meaty part of one's weaker forearm to absorb a strike—in other words, to get slashed—and then seize the weapon with the stronger arm. But both my academy and karate instructors ended such lessons with a warning: "Prepare to get cut."

The reaction of most police officers would be to shoot a knife-wielding attacker (the guidelines for the use of lethal force for every law-enforcement agency that I know of authorize such a reaction). Because of the dangerous nature of an airborne plane, I would venture to say that a cop could legally use deadly force in a greater range of incidents on-board. For instance, anyone physically attacking the pilot would be fair game.

Police officers involved in shootings hit their targets with roughly one out of three bullets fired. This sounds like we are lousy shots, but that is much, much better than the general public, criminals included. And presumably an officer on a plane would not be facing well-armed assailants. In the case of Tuesday's attack, even a bad marksman might have saved many lives.

Of course, bringing a gun onto a plane is dangerous, no matter who's carrying it. The on-board cops would need special ammunition, designed to avoid breaching the fuselage (a brand called Glaser Safety Slugs is supposedly lethal to humans but not airplanes). And cops are already well-trained to prevent attackers from taking their guns. In short, you must secure the weapon in its holster and deliver a strike, perhaps to the eyes, taking advantage of the position of the attacker's busy hands. If an officer feels that he is in danger of actually losing possession of the weapon, using it on the attacker is justified.

Of course, these techniques aren't foolproof. The officer would have to ride in the cockpit or immediately outside, and stay there except when necessary. Contact with passengers would have to be limited so as to protect the cop from ambush. Or cops could check in discreetly and remain unidentified to the passengers. This would increase the deterrent effect of the program, though the terrorists might be savvy enough about American police officers to "make" one anyway (the drug dealers I used to chase had little trouble recognizing me as I strolled on their block trying to look nonchalant).

Police officers registered in this program would devote a period of time to the airline—perhaps a 48-hour period each month. In return, they would receive travel vouchers good for free flying (additional payment would help encourage participation, too). The airlines would have to maintain a national database of qualified police officers, including photos and other identifying information. Each officer would have to attend training both in the proper procedures for taking law-enforcement action on an airplane as well as the more mundane procedures of the conventional crew of an airplane. Laws would have to be changed to give the police jurisdiction in the air above states other than their own.

Having cops on planes would not make America immune to the dangers of terrorism. But such a program might well have prevented last Tuesday's attacks. Some might think my proposal is self-serving, but I can assure them that I will not be participating in my program; I was already afraid of flying.

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