CHICAGO (CN) — In 1993, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board determined that security guards working at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway international airports were law enforcement officers. In 2017, it changed its mind.
The change followed an ILETSB investigation into airport security guards' chain of command within the Chicago Department of Aviation, itself prompted by a seemingly innocuous 2016 email from a CDA official telling the board that the department was seeking access to an online law enforcement database of state criminal records. ILETSB officials thought the CDA already had access to the database; the fact it didn't called its status as a law enforcement agency into question.
The investigation revealed that while airport security officers received similar training to Chicago police officers and performed similar duties - part of the basis for the 1993 decision granting them law enforcement status - the CDA had no oversight from the Chicago Police Department. No one in the CDA answered to the city's police superintendent.
Accordingly, the board wrote in an April 2017 letter to the city that it could not “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.” The decision was affirmed by the city and backed up by concurring determinations from the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
For the city, the change was the correction of a decadeslong oversight; the removal of law enforcement power from an institution that was never supposed to have it. It was also politically convenient - only four days after the ILETSB sent its letter to City Hall, video surfaced of O'Hare security guards dragging a man off a United Airlines flight by his wrists, police stars visible on their waists and hats. At the time the city was still reeling from allegations that the police and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel had worked to cover up white CPD officer Jason Van Dyke's 2014 murder of Black teenager Laquan McDonald. It was happy to wash its hands of further cop controversy.
“[The] City’s Aviation Security Officers do not receive any certification or appointment from the Chicago Police Superintendent, are under the supervision of the Commissioner of the CDA, and serve as an unarmed security function and are not police officers or special police officers under the Chicago Municipal Code,” the city wrote in a June 2017 letter to the ILETSB.
But the city's gain was the airport security guards' loss. Law enforcement status comes with a number of benefits and professional opportunities, both of which the guards lost overnight. Even longtime guards who were allowed to keep their personal law enforcement certification had their law enforcement benefits retroactively stripped.
"By way of administration, officers who received their training and certification as employees of the CDA will remain certified officers; however, time served as an employee of this entity will not qualify towards any law enforcement benefits or credentials as maintained by the Board," the ILESTB wrote in 2017.
Three security guards, convinced the city and state had illegally deprived them of their benefits, filed a federal class action lawsuit against Chicago, Illinois and the heads of the CDA and ILESTB in 2018. The guards alleged the cancellation of their law enforcement status was a violation of their property and due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman didn't buy it. The Bill Clinton appointee winnowed the case several times, eventually dismissing all defendants except the city itself. In September 2021, he tossed the case entirely. He found that the guards could not claim a due process property rights violation for property - in this case police benefits - they were never supposed to have in the first place.