There is a push to privatize the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which some believe will make the agency known for airport security screenings less expensive and more effective. The TSA has expressed openness to using private airport security and, facing budget cuts, has also floated the idea of passing the responsibility to guard airports to state and local governments.
The United States is among only a handful of Western countries that use government-run screeners at airports. According to a Heritage Foundation report, in 2017 there were only four European airports (Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Switzerland) that used government screeners. In Canada, according to the report, private screeners cost about 40 percent less per capita and 15 percent less per traveler than the TSA costs in the United States.
One of the key concerns, however, has been about cutting the K-9 bomb detection teams. In April, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized proposals to cut the funding for the K-9 teams, saying they are a security asset too sensitive to risk.
Yet private security companies are already preparing to meet the need, according to Michael O’Neil, CEO of MSA Security, which has the largest privately owned K-9 explosive detection unit and runs training programs for teams.
“What they realize is, they do need to embrace the private part of the sector,” he said, referring to the new demand for private teams. “It was something specific to governments, but now they’re starting to realize that they need to really cover this threat, which has unfortunately evolved.”
O’Neil served in the New York Police Department for 22 years and was the first commanding officer of the NYPD Counterterrorism Division, which he helped establish after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
According to O’Neil, the value of the K-9 detection units goes beyond just their ability to find explosives. “If a bad actor is doing operational surveillance of a facility, they see that as a deterrent. They don’t know what that dog is capable of doing. The government sees that in all sectors, whether it’s air cargo, airports, or Penn Station,” he said.
“What TSA is starting to realize, and they’re putting out a program for private K-9s now, is they want to use private K-9s on the passenger side, and they’re going to create some type of certification program now for private K-9.”
In this role, dogs are still too useful to be replaced by machines. According to Wired, the Pentagon spent $19 billion over six years trying to create technology to detect bombs, only to find that the most effective tool is a dog and its handler.
O’Neil compared the privatization of the bomb detection dog industry to that of the armed guard industry. “Armed guards have to be there for a reason, which is that cops can’t be everywhere. So they supplement the services of armed guards, and I think the K-9 services do the same thing.”
The units pull some lessons from the NYPD programs, including the type of dogs chosen for the job. They use mostly labradors, whose floppy ears and generally friendly demeanor won’t make people nervous when on patrol.
O’Neil said that with the units, “you’re not there to scare families; you’re there to create a welcoming environment.” He noted a recent assignment they had, guarding a Disney show on Broadway. “A guy showed me a picture one day where there was a high threat, and they put a costume on the dog. The kids got a kick out of it.”
Regardless of appearances, however, the K-9 units are meant to be just as effective as those trained by government programs. He said, “If it can find the scent, we can imprint them on it.”