CHICAGO (CN) – Aviation security officers filed a class action against Chicago and Illinois, claiming they were unconstitutionally stripped of their police powers and concealed-carry privileges after a doctor was dragged off a United Airlines flight last year.
In April 2017, footage of airline cops forcibly removing doctor David Dao off United Flight 3411 bound for Kentucky lit up the internet, prompting widespread outrage and condemnation of the airline and the Chicago police force.
Three aviation security officers say in a class action filed Wednesday that officials seized on the Dao incident to strip them of their law enforcement powers and concealed-carry gun rights, and erase employment histories that would have allowed them to find work at other law enforcement agencies.
“While presumably it was politically expedient for the city of Chicago to say that it had 300 police officers at the airports charged with first-responder duties after Sept. 11, 2001, now – after the public relations fallout from United Flight 3411 – it is politically expedient for a new directive identifying the [aviation police officers, or APOs] as ‘observers’ rather than police and first responders,” according to the lawsuit filed by lead attorney Robert Sweeney with Sweeney & Scharkey.
The officers call attention to an April 5 letter from the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board that was “purportedly” written just four days before the Dao incident and sets in motion the justification to strip the aviation officers of their law enforcement credentials.
Addressed to Chicago’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Joan Coogan, the officers claim the letter is evidence that the board wanted to “create the false impression” that it decision to decertify aviation officers “arose before” the Dao incident. The document is attached as an exhibit to the complaint.
The letter, written by the board member Cora Beem, states that the board learned that aviation police officers are distinguishable from rank-and-file Chicago police because they are not directed by the Chicago Police Superintendent, are not permitted to carry firearms on or off duty, and do not share the same pensions and benefits.
“Therefore, we cannot trace law enforcement authority from the Illinois statutes to these particular employees, in the manner that we can for CPD officers, and we can no longer find them [to] be law enforcement officers,” Beem wrote.
The aviation security officers were officially decertified last July.
Beem is on extended leave and the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board said it could not comment on pending litigation.
The potential class of 292 officers claims the city and state are violating their due process rights under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman with the Chicago Department of Law, said Thursday that he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. A spokesperson for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was not immediately available for comment.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Sweeney, said the city’s actions mean the aviation security officers will struggle to find law enforcement jobs in other agencies and jurisdictions and that his clients “want their history back.” He noted that the officers had testified in court and issued citations.
“The city wanted all the benefits of having a 292-person police force out there when it was expedient and then when it suddenly was not, they wiped it all away,” Sweeney said in phone interview Thursday.
“This feels personal,” added officer Julio Dones in a prepared statement. “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.”
For over three decades, the city has trained would-be officers at the Chicago Police Academy or Cook County Sherriff’s Academy. Even though officers are not allowed to use firearms at work, Illinois gun laws permit them to carry concealed firearms at other times.
After the United incident, the city replaced the officers’ stars and with egg-shaped badges, and removed the words “police” from their uniforms and vehicles, which were repainted to identify them as aviation security, according to the lawsuit.
The aviation officers claim the city was happy to tout the Chicago Department of Aviation’s law enforcement credentials in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack when Americans across the country were jittery about air travel and the prospect of subsequent attacks.
But Department Commissioner Ginger Evans told lawmakers in Washington shortly after the Dao incident that the city did not consider aviation security “police” and later that summer stated that they “are not, and have never been, police.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel allegedly underlined Evans’ comments in his statements to the press.
The class action follows a lawsuit filed Tuesday by fired airline security officer James Long, who claims the city failed to properly train him on the appropriate use of force against Dao.
United had decided to bump four passengers from the flight after it overbooked and needed to dispatch crew members to Louisville. Dao was among those randomly selected. He refused to budge, and told the officers: “I’m not leaving this flight that I paid money for. I don’t care if I get arrested,” according to Long’s complaint.
Long claims that he “assisted the subject by using minimal but necessary force” and that Dao’s injuries were a “direct result of his fighting with aviation officers.”
Dao is not a party to Long’s complaint, but Long blamed him for escalating the incident and said that United should have foreseen that officers would have to use force to haul him off the plane.
Footage showed Dao returning to his seat with a bloodied face after his head had hit an armrest and officers dragged him away. Dao, a Kentucky pulmonologist, suffered a concussion, broke his nose and lost two teeth.
He reached a settlement with United three weeks after the viral incident for an undisclosed amount of money.