Assault at Denver International Airport

I used to work as the assistant security director at Denver International Airport. When I saw the story about the recent sexual assault that took place int the terminal building it reminded me, as it should remind every aviation security practitioner and passenger and employee, that aviation security is not just about preventing terrorism, it’s also about preventing common crimes such as assault, drug smuggling, theft and human trafficking.

Large airports are small cities with daily transient populations of 40,000 to 50,000 or more, and employee populations of ten to twenty thousand and up. With that many people, you’re going to have a few that are less then honest.

While theft is the most common airport crime, and assaults are admittedly the least, the question remains, what should or can be done to prevent it? It certainly is a heinous crime. In the case in Denver, airline employees saw what was happening, intervened and summoned both security and police assistance. Word is coming out now that the assault may have been caught on CCTV, however, CCTV is not always an effective method of catching someone in the act of committing a crime, unless someone is watching every camera.

The problem with CCTV is that it’s great at evidence after-the-fact, and has some benefit as a deterrence if the bad guy knows he’s on candid camera, but it’s not very good at catching the act while it’s happening. The problem is, with thousands of cameras at the airport, there are only a few actual monitors and even fewer people watching them. Also, it’s impractical to sit and stare at a monitor all day as humans make terrible system monitors – just ask the FAA guys dozing off in the towers.

Will more CCTV cameras deter this type of crime? The additional question is, will more CCTV monitors provide a better cost/benefit to the airport based on the frequency of the occurrence of this type of crime and, are there more effective methods of preventing, deterring and responding to assaults in the airport. In other words, are there better places to spend money and resources to prevent assaults than buying more cameras?

The chances that an individual monitoring a series of cameras is going to catch a bad guy in the act, considering this type of assault is incredibly rare, is incredibly small.

Many of DIA’s badge holding personnel, whether they work for the airport, the airline, or wherever, if they hold an Airport ID Badge, they’ve been provided with both training in identifying suspicious activities and training in how to notify the airport police in case of an emergency. From early reports, it sounds like some employees may have ignored the woman’s initial cries for help, and it wasn’t until two Frontier Airline ramp workers observed the scene from outside and ran to help, that the assault was stopped and reported. If that’s the case, the individuals who ignored the woman’s pleas, need to be re-trained. And the Frontier employees need a free trip to Disney World for stepping up.

Even though community policing is the strategy for good airport policing, crime still does occur at airports and it’s not always employee theft from baggage and cargo (the most common crimes), nor is it always drug smuggling. Human trafficking, sexual assaults and simple assault, also takes place at U.S. airports – the former more often than many would like to admit.

Perhaps a few more cameras couldn’t hurt – but maybe airports should take a lesson from school security experts and install panic alarms, or train airport and airline workers that in an emergency, if they cannot get to a phone, to activate one of the thousands of door alarms throughout the airport, which will usually get a security or police response rather quickly.

It’s time to issue a BOLO (be on the lookout) to airport police, security guards and operations personnel, and all airport / airline employees for real crime taking place, not just terrorism.

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