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Marshals Drain Law Airport*

February 4, 2002


As U.S.'s Air Marshal Program Grows,

Other Agencies Face Dwindling Ranks



WASHINGTON -- When the federal government announced right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that it would expand its corps of airplane police, dozens of U.S. Border Patrol agents in San Diego quickly decided it was time for a career change.

In a single day in October, 11 agents in San Diego quit their lower-paying, more-demanding jobs at the U.S.-Mexico border for higher-paying, ostensibly lower-stress jobs in the sky.

See full coverage of the Aftermath of Terror1.

So far, 81 of the 231 agents who left the agency since Sept. 11 have said they did so to join the Federal Air Marshal program, further exacerbating a worker shortage at the perennially understaffed Border Patrol. The actual total might be higher, because agents aren't required to say why they are leaving -- and many don't.

"The Border Patrol may be being dealt its death blow," says Joseph Dassaro, president of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council in San Diego, which represents about 1,800 agents in the San Diego area and 7,000 nationwide.

Mr. Dassaro has long complained that the Immigration and Naturalization Service isn't doing enough to keep agents, particularly in San Diego where the cost of living is high. "Our Internet message board is flooded with nothing but people talking about the Air Marshals," he said.

The INS, which oversees the Border Patrol, recently began asking agents why they are leaving, though administrators say they aren't worried about the personnel drain. "For us, this is nothing new," INS spokesman Russ Bergeron says. "Yes, we've lost some people, but we haven't lost the number of people that would create a crisis for us."

The INS will receive additional federal funding to recruit and hire more agents.

Other federal law-enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service and the Coast Guard, are losing employees to the Air Marshal program, even as they are scrambling to beef up their own ranks to improve homeland security. With their pool of highly trained workers, these agencies are practically job banks for the Air Marshal program.

At the U.S. Coast Guard, which lent several agents to the Air Marshal program after the terrorist attacks, a half-dozen investigative-service agents are considering joining the program permanently, and one already has, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Rick Wester says. "The FAA needs people quickly," he said of the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees hiring for the Air Marshal program. "Instead of taking people they have to train, they can take people from our investigative-services unit who have gone through the same kind of training as Air Marshals and are used to handling weapons in confined spaces on boats and airplanes. Our people also already have a lot of the required background checks and clearances."

Once considered a marginal arm of federal law-enforcement agencies, with a minuscule staff, the Air Marshal program has gained cachet since the Sept. 11 hijackings. The combination of the extra funding and a soft economy has propelled applications to be Air Marshals -- 150,000 applicants so far and counting.

The sky-marshal jobs, however, are particularly well-suited for people with law-enforcement experience, and that doesn't help the other law-enforcement agencies trying to build their work forces. The other agencies don't even know just how many workers the Air Marshal program needs to ride on roughly 30,000 commercial flights a day. That information is classified. "We have gone to them to ask 'Hey, look, can you tell us how many of our people you are taking?' " says Sid Waldstreicher, project manager for Immigration and Naturalization Service hiring. "And they won't tell us."

The Air Marshal job pays between $35,100 and $80,800 a year, depending on experience. Border agents' base pay is between $21,721 and $50,589, and even with mandatory overtime that can boost the base by 25%, their compensation is the lowest among federal law-enforcement agencies. Legislation to increase border agents' pay passed the House in December, but the Senate has yet to act.

Mr. Bergeron acknowledges that working conditions for border agents are tough. Turnover is highest among new recruits, who are typically assigned to the busy San Diego border to improve their Spanish skills and gain experience interdicting illegal Mexican migrants. "The Air Marshal and other federal law-enforcement jobs are not comparable to the Border Patrol," Mr. Bergeron says. "The working conditions and job demands are significantly different and greater. Once people get out there on the border, in the middle of the desert, they may decide, 'This is not for me.' "

Job jumping is common in law enforcement, where local police departments and the Border Patrol are widely treated as training camps for jobs at the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service, among others.

"Some of the other agencies wait for our agents to finish the academy and then sweep them up," Mr. Bergeron says.

With the federal government boosting the agencies' budgets to improve homeland security, the competition for workers is expected to intensify.

Even before Sept. 11, the demand was strong for some law-enforcement jobs. When the U.S. Customs Service put out its yearly job announcement on the Internet in early September, the response was overwhelming. "We expected to have it posted for 10 days to two weeks, and we were looking to receive 2,000 to 2,500 applications," Customs Service spokesman James Michie says. "Within 3½ days of the posting, we logged 5,500 applications, which, of course, puts us in a good position."

The newly created Transportation Security Administration, which eventually will oversee the Air Marshal program, plans to hire 429 federal security directors to watch over baggage screening and other airport security. It already has received 10,000 applications for those executive-level positions. John Magaw, former chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was recently picked to head the TSA, and two ATF employees are following him to the new agency, as is the head of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and the ATF's former acting chief counsel.

"The raiding has begun," one ATF official says.

The U.S. Capitol Police anticipated the competition in hiring. It raised salaries across the board Oct. 7 and followed with a cost-of-living increase, says Lt. Dan Nichols, a spokesman. "It's a tool for us to attract qualified candidates in a very competitive field and also retain the personnel we already have," he says. So far, only a handful of Capitol Police officers have left, and few have joined the Air Marshal program, Mr. Nichols said.

Around the country, mayors are concerned their police forces are prime targets. "We own our airport, and we have 30 police officers in our aviation department and 910 officers in our regular police department," says Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, who discussed his concerns at a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering.

He says one of his big worries is that the Air Marshals will snap up Albuquerque police. "We have a number of officers who are champing at the bit to see how this program plays out," Mr. Chavez says. "I don't think I can pay them as much."

Gary Fields contributed to this article.

Write to Marjorie Valbrun at marjorie.valbrun@wsj.com2

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