- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

Some law-enforcement agencies are complaining that the revamped Federal Air Marshal program is taking away their best officers.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees the air marshal program, is using generous compensation packages to attract thousands of air marshals. The agency is rushing to meet a deadline from Congress to operate as a fully functioning agency.
No city has been raided more than the District, where local and federal law-enforcement agents make up a larger portion of the population than in any other urban area.
"It's not just numbers," said Lt. Dan Nichols, U.S. Capitol Police spokesman. "What we're losing is experienced officers, a lot of whom we have given special training. It's a talent drain in addition to sheer numbers."
About 60 of the 1,350 Capitol Police officers have searched for greener pastures as air marshals.
Other law enforcement agencies have similar stories.
"Besides the city, all federal agencies are being hit to some extent," said Brian Marr, U.S. Secret Service spokesman.
The agencies describe the exodus as an inconvenience but not an understaffing that imperils the nation's capital.
"I don't believe we're in any type of crisis," Mr. Marr said. "We're just refilling slots that have been vacated."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams said he is facing a similar problem in trying to increase the District's police force.
As soon as new police officers are recruited, trained and ready to enter the work force, the Federal Air Marshal program pulls the most seasoned veterans away, he said.
"We're trying to bring [the Metropolitan Police Department] up to 3,800," Mr. Williams said in an interview last week with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. "It's going to be hard to do that with that undercurrent."
Mr. Williams consults with national security planners and mayors of other cities.
"Some of the problems we have faced are the same for jurisdictions across the country," he said. "This thing is a huge undertow sucking up law enforcement across the country. The uniformed Secret Service has lost something like over 170 people."
The air marshal program says it is drawing the best and brightest from law enforcement agencies. They are lured by starting salaries of $52,000 that can reach $80,800 per year, generous retirement benefits and the prestige of what is supposed to be the cutting edge of their profession.
"We're getting the cream of the crop, the guys who are looking for something more adventurous," said TSA spokesman David Steigman. "That's not raiding. That's people seeking a challenge."
He acknowledges that the air marshal staff is being assembled at a head-spinning pace.
"We're creating an agency from scratch," said Mr. Steigman, who is in his fourth week on the job with the TSA.
However, like many new programs, the expanding air marshals program is beset by uncertainties as it tries to define itself.
Much of the uncertainty flows from deadlines imposed by Congress. From a small force of 32 air marshals during the September 11 attacks, the Transportation Security Administration is supposed to develop a force that some estimates place at 6,000.
The exact number and deadline are a guess. Almost everything the air marshals do is a secret. They are not supposed to talk to the media or passengers about their jobs. Any management decisions are supposed to stay in-house. Although TSA officials refuse to reveal the date of their deadline to be fully staffed, other congressional security deadlines are set for the end of this year.
Some federal officials have hinted at shortcuts and hurried efforts in the rush to make the airways safe.
"We had to ramp up very quickly," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told reporters during a tour of the Federal Air Marshal training center in Egg Harbor, N.J., last week. "We borrowed from other federal agencies to get people onto the airplanes right away."
The need for speed took precedence over what was supposed to be a more intensive training program.
"In ramping up, given that seven-week training program, maybe we crunched it down to four weeks," Mr. Mineta said.
The air marshals are supposed to be spread among the 35,000 daily U.S. flights that represent the greatest security threats. Many are international flights. Others are long-haul flights between major cities, similar to the four airplanes that were hijacked September 11 on flights from the East Coast to the West Coast.
Press tours have revealed some details of the air marshals' training. Marksmanship on the training center's firing range is one part. Another is practice with simulated hijackings on an L-1011 airliner. The air marshals are supposed to shoot the hijackers, order passengers to stay in their seats and do quick searches of the airplanes to ensure the threat is over.
How long they can retain their jobs and higher salaries is not certain.
The 1970 law that created the Federal Air Marshal program will not allow them to be union members. Police unions wonder how long higher pay scales and the inspiration of the September 11 attacks will continue to motivate the new air marshals.
"It's almost as though a lot of these guys are willing to roll the dice on the TSA because they're disenchanted with the places they're in," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police.
He urged a wait-and-see attitude.
"TSA right now, it's too early to rate them in terms of employee satisfaction," Mr. Pasco said. "They're so new and they're still in that settling-in process."
Mr. Marr, the Secret Service spokesman, was equally cautious.
"A lot of people will go because it looks like the grass is greener, but it's not always so," he said.

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