VIDEO: Honolulu Airport attack shows TSA officers' vulnerabilities

Justin Rogers
Justin Rogers

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The dramatic security video of a homeless woman attacking a TSA officer at Honolulu International Airport highlights problems some TSA officers complain about: that they have no law enforcement powers, self-defense training or gear to protect themselves from attacks.

The video generated more than 150 comments on Hawaii News Now's Facebook page, especially because an off-duty police officer from California waiting to be screened at a checkpoint jumped in to take down the assailant while some TSA officers looked on.

"TSA is obviously worthless if passengers have to save themselves.  What's the point if someone else has to step in to do their job?" wrote Frank Hinshaw on HNN's Facebook page.

But officials said the TSA is not a law enforcement agency and Congress did not set it up as a law enforcement organization. That means TSA officers do not have the power to arrest anyone.

That's why in Saturday's incident at HNL, an armed guard, the only one dressed in black, arrived on the scene with handcuffs to put on the assailant.

Armed law enforcement officers like him are posted at each airport checkpoint.

But TSA officers who asked to remain anonymous because they would be disciplined for speaking to the media complained they have no self-defense training.

And they are not given any self-protection gear: no guns, handcuffs, tasers or pepper spray.

"We have nothing.  We can only run away and call for help," said one TSA officer.

Another Hawaii TSA officer said, "We should have some way to protect ourselves, but they don't give that to us. They give us training on all kinds of things to keep the people safe, but no training to protect ourselves."

On Facebook, Christopher Duenas wrote, "TSA has to be prepared to face the unpredictable by instituting escalation of force measures and personal protective training."

And Conrad Chavez offered this Facebook comment: "The stupid thing is that TSA agents aren't authorized to do anything.  They don't have arresting authority."

At mid-morning Friday, HNN asked a TSA spokeswoman on the West Coast if the assault at Honolulu airport raises questions about TSA officers' abilities to defend themselves and the flying public.

But the spokeswoman said she'd have to respond next week, since the Washington, D.C. TSA headquarters was already closed, because it's six hours ahead of Hawaii.

This security video showed a male TSA officer at the checkpoint leaning over a glass barrier to see what was happening and he getting ready to jump over it.

But then an off-duty police officer from California leaped over another portion of the barrier and took down the assailant.

And that TSA officer decided not to jump in and help, as other TSA officers arrived.

Dale Lee wrote these comments in reaction to HNN's web story: "Why did it take a traveler to do something?  You can see one TSA agent just stand there and watch."

"It's good that a REAL cop was around," wrote Kahea Uh Ma. "The TSA agents at Honolulu Airport are jokes," she said.

But some TSA officers offered Hawaii News Now a potential explanation for why at least one officer appeared reluctant to step in.

"If we get involved and fight back, the TSA employee could face discipline," said one TSA officer.

"We are not supposed to fight back.  You are supposed to block yourself until a law enforcement officer gets there," said another TSA employee.

"You're supposed to let the lady go and then yell 'security breach,' according to another TSA officer.

State sheriff deputies arrested and booked Wailana Haiola, 43, who's homeless, with assault after the March 30 incident. She was taken to Castle Medical Center in Kailua, which has a mental unit and released on her own recognizance.

One TSA officer asked why state sheriff deputies released the woman and didn't hand her over to federal authorities, since she was accused of attacking a federal officer.

TSA officials thanked off-duty Pinole, Calif. Police Officer Justin Rogers for jumping a partition and tackling the assailant.

"Officer Rogers was in the proximity and we're grateful he responded," said Lorie Dankers, a Seattle-based spokeswoman for the TSA. "Passengers are another layer of security."

The TSA agent attacked while guarding an exit lane, Deanna Rezentes, was "a little swollen and sore on the left side her face," Sunday, according to an internal TSA email to staff sent by Honolulu's Federal Security Director Stanford Miyamoto.

Hawaii has approximately 1,000 TSA officers and about 700 of them are stationed on Oahu, with the remainder scattered among the neighbor islands.  They are represented by the American Federal of Government Employees, Local 1234.

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