Unsung Heroes: The Tampa airport police chief on being a better traveler — and staying out of jail

Sep 5, 2021

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With more than 60,000 passengers, employees, and visitors passing through each day (90,000 in pre-pandemic, ‘normal’ times), Tampa International Airport (TPA) is like a city. And, as in any city, small or large, there are community standards and laws that must be obeyed. These days that includes following the federal mandate to wear a mask covering your face and nose while in the airport.

The federal mandate has been extended to January 18, 2022, and at TPA anyone who refuses to comply with that rule must ultimately deal with TPA Police Chief Charlie Vazquez and his team of 81 officers.

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We sat down with Charlie Vazquez to get the 411 on some of the duties of an airport police chief, airport crime, TPA’s “mask blitzes,” and where he’d like to go on vacation.

Unsung hero: Charlie Vazquez, Director of Public Safety and Security/ Chief of Police at Tampa International Airport (TPA)

TPG: What was your path to become Chief of Police at Tampa International Airport?

CZ: Before coming here I was with the Houston Police Department for 24 years. I retired from there in 2017 as Assistant Police Chief and have been at Tampa International Airport as Director of Public Safety and Security/Chief of Police for four and half years.

TPG: What sort of responsibilities does your job entail?

CZ: We enforce all laws and some federal regulation. And we provide for the safety, security, and mobility of passengers and employees at the airport. A lot of people are surprised that the airport even has its own police department. We arrest people every day, some people for theft, some people for warrants.

With 60,000 people coming through the airport everyday you’re always going to have issues. Sometimes just disturbances, misunderstandings, and people who have no business being here. Occasional there are assaults. And there is theft. Lucky for us the whole airport is under video surveillance, so we have a very high clearance rate for property crimes. And yes, we do have a jail on property.

Related: FAA reaches $1 million benchmark in fines issued to unruly passengers

TPG: Do you get involved when a firearm is found at a security checkpoint?

CZ: Yes. It happens quite a bit, several times a week. Here in Hillsboro County if you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon [CCW] more than likely you will not be arrested. More than likely, we’ll escort you off the airside. But if you don’t have a CCW, it becomes a felony, and you will be arrested.

TPG: We hear a lot of stories about the rise of unruly passengers on airplanes. Do you see that reflected in the airport?

CZ: Yes, it seems to be people are not as nice, or they’re aggravated with each other. There does seem to be an uptick in it and lot of it is related to masks.

Travelers wearing mask at American Airlines check-in area
Masked passengers check-in for flights at Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images)

TPG: How has your team been dealing with passengers who don’t wear masks?

CZ: Wearing masks is technically not a law, it’s a federal mandate that we help enforce.

If you won’t put on your mask and the airline or the airport tells you to leave and you don’t, then it becomes a crime of trespassing and that’s usually when we get involved. The last thing we want to do is put people in jail over a mask, so we give reminders to people to put their mask on, explain the mandate and why it is important, and tell them what will happen to them if they don’t comply. So far, we haven’t had to arrest anyone for trespassing because they haven’t put on the mask.

Related: Mask mandate during air travel, other public transport will be extended until January

TPG: We understand that TPA has mask minders who do regular “mask blitzes’ in the airport?

CZ: For about a month now we’ve been sending out teams to let people know that we are enforcing the mandate. We all meet at a centralized location, we all get masks to pass out, and we each take a territory – baggage, rental car center, airside – and in teams of two or three we go around to tell people to put on their masks. They call it a “mask blitz,” but it is more like a target enforcement action or a mask audit. We’re not about mean mugging people or staring at them; we approach them and remind them to wear their mask indoors. No one really wants to be the mask police – especially the police.

TPG: From your experience as a police chief, what advice can you give people who want to be better passengers?

CZ: My advice would be to read and pay attention to all the dos and don’ts from the TSA, the airport, and the airlines. Pay attention to where you leave your phone, your computer, your iPads, and your other belongings at the airport. We have a lot of laptops left in restrooms. And sometimes people loading luggage into their cars at curbside leave a bag behind. Mostly, understand that there’s extra pressure now for everyone – including the airline staff and even the police – so be kind to your fellow traveler.

Related: You’re not crazy: Loss of travel is causing people to feel stress and anxiety

TPG: How has working in the airport changed your idea about traveling?

CZ: I allow for a lot more than time than I did before, because I understand things don’t always go as planned. And I’ve learned to be nicer to other people traveling, because I’ve seen the other side of things. Sometimes you’re traveling to a funeral or a bad event, or you are going to being separated from someone for a long time. Airports are very emotional places.

TPG: If you could go anywhere in the world, on vacation where would it be?

CZ: I can still remember Miss Coleman’s third grade Social Studies class where she showed us a little town in Holland that had an attraction where the city was made in miniature. I can’t remember right now which town that was, but I’d like to go see that miniature city. (Editor’s note: One place to see a miniature city in Holland is Madurodam.)

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