Rich Cooper

Sep 11, 2009

In life you get to meet a lot of people, but there are very few that can do things that are extra-ordinary.  Erroll Southers is one of those people.  Nominated by the President to be the next Administrator of TSA, he takes on one of the most challenging and public-engaging entities anywhere in government.

TSA is in every sense the first-born child of the post 9/11 US Government.  From asking you to take off your shoes and empty your pockets before going through the airport X-ray machine, to monitoring rail and other transportation safety, the Agency has been target of jokes, poor press, second guessing by everyone (including yours truly), and contempt by a lot of people.   While there are a lot deserved and undeserved pokes at TSA, it is also an organization that has matured and improved dramatically over the past several years.  From improvements to passenger screening, dramatic reductions in worker turnover, employee training enhancements, use of new media and the TSA Blog to better connect to the public it safeguards, the Agency has shown with patience, time and investment it can fulfill the difficult charter it was given.

That being said, TSA remains one of the least popular government agencies.  When you have a thankless job, though, that’s to be expected.  That’s why Erroll Southers is the right man for TSA.

His background is phenomenally impressive – he’s been an FBI Special Agent, led critical infrastructure protection efforts for the State of California, been an educator at police academies as well as the University of Southern California, lectured around the world on counter-terrorism, and served as the counter-terrorism lead for the nation’s largest aviation law enforcement agency – the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) Police Department.

Everywhere this guy has gone he’s made a huge impact. TSA and DHS are getting one of America’s best and brightest.

My only complaint about his appointment is what the hell took the Administration so long to find him and put him in place?!

Erroll has been a known and substantial quantity for a lot of us in the homeland community for some time.  As such, he should have been on anyone’s short list of people from the very get go. There is no use over bemoaning that now – they’ve picked him (finally) and they got a winner.

Now, what can we expect from him?

TSA employees are going to find a stalwart supporter of them in Erroll.  He’s a guy not afraid of being in the trenches when there’s heavy fire underway and when appropriate he will return it when it is strategically warranted.  While it’s always great to have leadership that’s good in a fight, these same employees will find themselves challenged in ways they haven’t been before.  They will be expected to step it up a notch personally and professionally.  They can also expect focused accountability as well.

Want proof?

Talk to any of his students either in the classroom or police academies.

If you’re looking for further evidence look at the efforts he’s led as part of in his current job as the Assistant Chief for Intelligence & Counter-Terrorism at the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) Police Department.

In partnership with LAWA’s Director for Law Enforcement and Protective Services, James Butts, Jr., Police Chief George R. Centeno (another rock star like Erroll) and LAWA leadership, he helped lead a complete overhaul of the training and education of its police force.  The results speak for themselves.  What was once seen as a poorly trained and less than exemplary police unit is now one of the best trained, most professional, interdisciplinary and exceptionally skilled airport police departments in the world.

That’s exactly what you would want considering that LAX is one of the world’s biggest targets of opportunity for terrorists.  Southers and company have hardened that target and the surround airports, and made sure its people are ready for anything that might happen on their watch.  I would expect the TSA Training Department to have someone very interested in what they do in occupying the big chair in the front office for the foreseeable future.

What can Congress and the media expect?

They’ll get a straight shooter.  That might be considered either a poor choice of words or more than appropriate set to use considering Southers’ shooting qualifications as a former FBI Special Agent and member of the Bureau’s SWAT Team as well as an Assistant Police Chief.  He can and will be upfront and honest in his dealings with them.  He will tell it like it is.  Some will like it. Others won’t.  But his character and integrity will not allow him to blow smoke or sunshine on a situation.  His record shows that.

What can the homeland community, as a whole, expect?

They can expect not just a leader, but a listener.  You can’t be a decent educator or leader and not be a listener.  Erroll has traveled the world not just to share his own words and thoughts on security, counter-terrorism and other subjects but he has also sought to hear and observe those of others as well.  Whether it be in Israel, China, Hong Kong, London, New York City, the Pentagon or God knows where else, he knows people on the front lines and executive suites and treats them all the same way.  With open ears, open mind and open hand in wanting to work together.

As to his vision on these subjects, his May 6, 2008 testimony before the US House’s Homeland Security Committee in their hearing, “The Resilient Homeland – Broadening the Homeland Security Strategy” will give you a good idea of where his mind is at.

Let me summarize it this way, “He gets it.

That’s a great thing to know when someone is taking on a difficult and thankless job.  He does get it and I’m more than confident he will do a great job.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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