Armed flying issue raised

Chris Joyner • [email protected] • June 10, 2008

A former state employee exceeded his authority when he wrote his own authorization letter so he could fly armed on a flight out of Jackson, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson said.

Mike Vick, former director of the Law Enforcement Liaison Office, was stopped at the Portland, Ore., airport in April carrying a gun on his return flight to Jackson.

Simpson said Monday that Vick was not acting as a law enforcement officer at the time. Vick could not be reached for comment.

The incident is the latest to raise questions about the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's armed-flying program and how that program is being monitored at Jackson-Evers International Airport.

Federal regulations only allow law enforcement officers to carry guns aboard planes and for a limited number of reasons, such as transporting a prisoner. Simpson said Vick and several employees in the Law Enforcement Liaison Office attended a training seminar in Portland.

"Why do you have to fly armed for that?" Simpson asked.

Simpson said he did not know if the other employees were armed.

The Law Enforcement Liaison Office provides training for local law enforcement around the state but is not a law enforcement agency. The office is funded through a grant administered by the University of Southern Mississippi, making Vick a USM employee.

USM spokeswoman Jana Bryant said Vick's employment with the university ended May 31. She would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Vick's trip to Portland or why he is no longer employed.

The incident occurred prior to the official start of Simpson's tenure as commissioner. He said he was briefed on it at the time.

Vick apparently had no problem bypassing security at the Jackson airport, Simpson said.

The problem came when Vick tried to board out of Portland on April 16 and TSA questioned his credentials. Vick was not arrested, and the incident remains under investigation.

Simpson said Vick was required to check his gun and allowed to board a later flight to Jackson.

In 2005 and 2006, Jackson Mayor Frank Melton used a letter from then-Police Chief Shirlene Anderson and a gold badge with the word "mayor" on it to bring his personal guns aboard flights to and from Jackson until TSA officials in Washington asked him to stop.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson has asked TSA Administrator Kip Hawley to send him a report on the incident, including preventive steps the agency is taking.

Federal regulations require police officers to present a picture ID and a letter from their "authorizing official" stating their need to fly armed to an airline representative. However, the regulations do not require the airline or TSA to verify that need or that the passenger is a legitimate law enforcement officer.

Vick also is a commissioned reserve deputy in the Hinds County Sheriff's Department. But Sheriff Malcolm McMillin said Vick was not acting in the capacity as a sheriff's deputy at the time he took that fight.

"(Undersheriff) Bill Gowan and I would be the only ones with the authority to issue that order," McMillin said. "I've been in law enforcement for 36 years, and I've never flown armed."

Simpson said Vick had taken the TSA Law Enforcement Officers Flying Armed training course to train police officers around the state in proper procedures for flying armed.

"I understand that Mike's side of the story was he followed TSA's training on flying armed," Simpson said.

Simpson said he does not know whether Vick conducted any training courses in the TSA program before Vick's employment with USM ended.

Simpson, a former circuit judge, said his policy is that TSA regulations be followed to the letter, especially when it comes to guns being taken onto a plane.

"I can't imagine a place where the rules would be less flexible than that," he said.

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