Air marshals who shot went by the book

In wake of passenger's death in Miami, some suggest exploring non-lethal steps

December 09, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Security experts and industry officials say the federal air marshals who fatally shot an airline passenger at Miami International Airport on Wednesday did exactly what they were trained to do after the passenger claimed to have a bomb and acted erratically.

Still, some say that doesn't mean there aren't other ways to deal with similar threats in the future. Some suggestions include pouring more resources into screening for explosives, more training to handle sick passengers and using less-than-lethal force in some situations.

"The [federal air marshals'] reaction was textbook, but can this incident be prevented in the future? There is a strong possibility," said Gary Boettcher, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations and an American Airlines pilot.

Transportation Security Administration officials said the marshals fired on Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, after he ignored orders to get down on the floor. Alpizar's luggage was later blown up as a precaution, and no other passengers or crew aboard the American Airlines plane were hurt.

Some media reported that Alpizar's wife said her husband was mentally ill and had not taken his medication.

Boettcher believes more could be done upfront to prevent some similar situations.

For example, Homeland Security officials could enhance their computer profiling of passengers to include more personal information and step up use of a behavior pattern recognition system that scans crowds for suspicious behavior. That could alert airline crews about a mentally unstable person or another potential threat.

The latest technology in explosives detection, like systems tested recently at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, could be installed at more airports.

And passengers, such as Alpizar's wife, could take on more responsibility for alerting airlines of the potential for erratic behavior that could be mistaken for a threat.

John Amat, a vice president at the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, an organization of 24,000 law enforcement officers, including 1,300 air marshals, said he did not believe non-lethal force was an option in the Miami case because, according to TSA officials, the man talked about a bomb, had a bag with him and kept his hands out of sight.

"This is not like Hollywood where you can always shoot a detonator out of someone's hand," said Amat, also a federal marshal. "You have a split second. You shoot for the center mass, the chest and head."

Tom Smith, president of Taser International, said stun guns such as those his company manufactures would be a non-lethal option.

In an incident reported recently in the British media, a man at an airport in Manchester was subdued with a Taser after running and acting suspiciously while carrying a suitcase. Officials said later that it did not contain a bomb.

TSA said yesterday that marshals are not trained to carry Tasers, and a spokeswoman for the agency couldn't say whether it would consider using them in the future. No U.S. airlines currently have permission from the agency to have them aboard.

United Airlines had trained its crews to use them but abandoned its application when it filed for bankruptcy protection. A Korean airline received permission to land with its stun guns aboard in 2004.

Homeland Security officials are still reviewing the Miami incident, the first in which an air marshal has shot someone since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted the program's rapid expansion. But a TSA spokeswoman said they believe all procedures were followed and the marshals' actions were appropriate.

Other security experts agree that if the information available now is correct, the government review will determine that the training and procedures now in place worked.

"If he had a bomb, you have to make a decision: Don't shoot and the bomber pushes the button and everyone dies. Or you shoot and one dies," said Yoel Lipson, a New York-based security consultant and former air marshal for Israel's El Al Airlines.

"With my training as an air marshal, I probably would have done the same."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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