Thursday, December 08, 2005


Federal Air Marshals: Questioned By Naysayers

Leave it up to the 20/20 hindsight crowd to question that training of the Air Marshals, who demonstrated yesterday that they are amongst the best in the world in handling emergency situations.
Few security experts question the actions of the air marshals who fired on Rigoberto Alpizar after he behaved erratically and reportedly said he had a bomb in his backpack. Within the context of their training, they say, the marshals acted appropriately.

But many question the training itself - as well as the way the federal government has handled the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) since 9/11, when the small security agency with fewer than three dozen marshals was ramped up to several thousand in a matter of months.

"All of this was created under tremendous pressure, as fast as they could, and the fact is that there are holes all over it," says Rich Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland in Oregon. "There's a lot of stuff that they really never had the time to think through, so they're always trying to tweak it. When you do that, it can cause confusion, morale problems, and some people to lose faith in the system."

That's just stupid. The job of an Air Marshals is to keep a low profile and handle a situation quickly and effectively. In the shooting yesterday, the Air Marshal responded to the situation and acted in accordance with what the training dictates. In as few words possible, here's what an Air Marshal --- as well as virtually anyone in law enforcement who would be placed in the same situation --- would do:
1. Recognize whether there is a possible threat;
2. Take the proper action to reduce the threat;
3. Invoke life-saving means which could result in taking the life of the assailant.
The job of an Air Marshal is to prevent terrorists from overtaking an airplane. Now, we first must establish the fact that airplanes cruise at a comfortable height of 30,000 - 35,000 feet. Many of the people in the crowd who are blaming the Air Marshals believe that he/she should have invoked psychological means to calm the passenger who was running around and finally claimed that he had a bomb, which resulted in his demise after he reached into his backpack. On the ground when using a SWAT team (or whatever your agency calls them), the threat assessment will examine and establish how many people are within a certain perimeter to the suspected bomber, how powerful and large the blast could and would be, and what means can be taken to take the bomber into custody without resulting to violence. In the case of Air Marshals, a single bomb blast would result in the deaths of hundreds of people, as dropping out of the sky from an airplane that is miles-high would surely result in your death. An Air Marshal is required to fire, and the case is presented very nicely in the situation that formed yesterday.

Now, we're going to cover the fact that the situation yesterday involved a plane that was already grounded, and that a suspect that ran off the plane. The Air Marshal took action and shot the suspect when he reached into his backpack. The naysayers are once again arguing that the Air Marshal could have used psychological methods to dissuade the bomber from detonating, but we once again have to ask the question: How close was the Air Marshal; who else was in the vicinity; what else was in the vicinity; how large could the explosion have been; and why should a bomb be allowed to explode when an Air Marshal has a clean shot and could prevent a explosion from a ballistic and/or biological bomb from occurring?

I believe the case has been made for the effectiveness of the Air Marshal program, as well as a case for armed agents on airplanes. As far as the training, I also believe that the proof of effectiveness in terms of Federal Air Marshal training has been established by a rehash of yesterdays events. All in all, it was a job well done.

UPDATE: I've seen a lot of reports referring to the Air Marshals as Air Marshalls with two L's. The correct spelling is with a single L.

UPDATE: The Federal Air Marshals have no relation to the US Marshals Service, which is a Federal version of County Sheriffs agencies. They also happen to be the oldest Federal law enforcement agency in the United States.

UPDATE: Time Magazine, who believed Yasser Arafat was one of the greatest men who ever lived, is under the impression that the Air Marshal's actions "were a little too quick on the draw[.]"

At least one passenger aboard American Airlines Flight 924 maintains the federal air marshals were a little too quick on the draw when they shot and killed Rigoberto Alpizar as he frantically attempted to run off the airplane shortly before take-off.

"I don't think they needed to use deadly force with the guy," says John McAlhany, a 44-year-old construction worker from Sebastian, Fla. "He was getting off the plane." McAlhany also maintains that Alpizar never mentioned having a bomb.

"I never heard the word 'bomb' on the plane," McAlhany told TIME in a telephone interview. "I never heard the word bomb until the FBI asked me did you hear the word bomb. That is ridiculous." Even the authorities didn't come out and say bomb, McAlhany says. "They asked, 'Did you hear anything about the b-word?'" he says. "That's what they called it."

Typical. The media spin to blame law enforcement has already begun.

UPDATE: I'm going to add these cites I happen to have sitting around. They are US Supreme Court decisions that should do enough to quiet the naysayers.

In Graham v. Connor (1989) 490 U.S. 386, the United States Supreme Court held that the reasonableness of the force used “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances” of the particular incident “including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” (Id., at 396) Further the Court stated, “[t]he “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” (Id., at 397) Moreover, “[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers areoften forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” (Id., at 397-398)

“…Thus, under Graham, we must avoid substituting our personal notions of proper police procedure for the instantaneous decision of the officer at the scene. We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day. What constitutes “reasonable” action may seem quite different to someone facing a possible assailant than to someone analyzing the question at leisure.” Smith v. Freland (6th Cir. 1992) 954 F.2d 343, 347

Graham’s definition of reasonableness has been described as “comparatively generous to police in cases where potential danger, emergency conditions or other exigent circumstances are present” (Roy v. Inhabitants of the City of Lewiston (1st Cir. 1994) 42 F.3d 691) and also as giving police “… a fairly wide zone of protection in close cases …” Martinez v. County of Los Angeles (1996) 47 Cal.App.4th 334

You can pull the cases from Lexis or WestLaw. I can't link to them unless you have an account.

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