Another breach of security at Jackson-Evers International Airport involving a firearm being brought aboard a plane has House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson demanding answers.
In a letter sent this week, Thompson gave U.S. Transportation Security Administration Director Kip Hawley until Monday to explain how a Mississippi Department of Public Safety employee was allowed to bring a handgun aboard a commercial flight out of Jackson.
The employee, Law Enforcement Liaison Office Director Mike Vick, was stopped by TSA officials in Portland, Ore., when he attempted to bring a gun on the return flight.
"You put everybody on the plane at risk if somebody who is unauthorized has a weapon," said Thompson, who represents Mississippi's 2nd District.
"Our goal is to protect those passengers. It defeats TSA's mission if they allow somebody to ride on an aircraft unauthorized with a weapon."
Vick was armed when he left Jackson, according to information Thompson received, but the congressman did not release the source of his information.
Federal regulations allow law enforcement officers to bring guns aboard a plane if they are transporting a prisoner, if their mission requires them to be armed when they arrive, or other limited circumstances. But the regulation does not require that anyone at the airport confirm the person flying is an actual police officer or that his or her reasons for boarding armed are legitimate.
TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency is looking into the breach, which apparently occurred earlier this spring.
According to the DPS' Web site, Vick acts as a liaison between the governor's Office of Highway Safety and state and local law enforcement. His office also offers training to local police in procedures for traffic stops, field sobriety tests and recognizing signs of drug abuse.
Vick did not respond to a message left on his cell phone. Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment, and department spokesman Warren Strain would not comment.
Because DPS would not comment, it's unclear whether Vick was traveling on personal or department business.
Officials at Portland International Airport acknowledged the incident but would not release the police report related to it. Airport spokeswoman Kama Simonds said Vick was not arrested, but the incident remains under investigation.
Thompson said the accusation that Vick took a firearm past security in Jackson is more troubling since security problems at the airport have been so public.
In 2006, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Jackson Mayor Frank Melton had taken firearms aboard flights out of Jackson and other airports around the nation. Melton was able to fly armed by using a TSA regulation that allows police officers to board planes armed by showing a badge and letter from their department claiming a need to fly armed.
Melton said at the time that he was a law enforcement officer because, as mayor, he was head of the Police Department. He is not a law enforcement officer. TSA asked the mayor to no longer attempt to fly with his guns.
Given the publicity surrounding Melton, Thompson, a Democrat from Bolton, said he was surprised to hear of a similar incident.
"This is a very, very serious matter, given the high-profile nature of what already has occurred at the airport," he said. "For a breach like this to occur again is a problem. TSA had assured me that these kinds of missteps would not happen."
Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner issued a report in September on Jackson-Evers, noting several problems with the armed flight program, including incomplete logs of who brought guns on flights and why. Skinner encouraged the department to apply greater scrutiny to who was allowed to fly armed.
Skinner also advised the department to move ahead with a Congress-mandated system to track law enforcement officers - using unique physical traits such as fingerprints or eye retinas.
White said a memo was circulated earlier this year to federal security directors encouraging more scrutiny of law enforcement documents. TSA continues to explore ways to implement a tracking system for armed passengers, he said.
The problem is not limited to Jackson. Last month, a U.S. Border Patrol agent was arrested in Houston, Texas, after he used his law enforcement credentials to bypass security in another airport, allegedly sneaking a bag containing 6 kilograms of cocaine onto the flight.
Authorities said the agent planned to take the drugs to a confidential informant in exchange for $6,000.
Thompson has asked Hawley to provide him with reports detailing the breach in Portland and explain what the agency is doing to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Despite past problems, White defended the program that allows police officers to bring guns aboard plans.
"Legitimate law enforcement officers traveling armed provide an additional layer of security to the American traveling public," he said.
Local police officers, because of their general crime-fighting training, can be an asset during an emergency in the air, he said.