False reports of an active shooter Sunday night at the Los Angeles International Airport set off panic and a heavy police crackdown, shutting down traffic and terminals, disrupting hundreds of flights and sending passengers fleeing onto the tarmac.
The false alarm came just weeks after a separate incident at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the cheering and clapping of people watching the Olympics was errantly reported as gunfire. These reports set off a multi-agency law enforcement counter-terror response, with the NYPD aggressively patrolling the terminals.
The police departments of Los Angeles and New York are both recipients of Urban Areas Security Initiative federal funds, which bankroll the militarization of police forces nationwide under the guise of countering terrorism.
The incident at LAX, the seventh busiest airport in the world, started around 8:45pm, when gunfire was reported in terminals 6, 7 and 8. Police proceeded to shut down numerous terminals, as well as nearby traffic, and all flights were halted between 9 and 9:30pm.
“Word spread quickly through the terminals by word-of-mouth, social media, and additional calls were made to Airport Police about an active shooter in other terminals, with some reporting having heard gunshots,” LAX staid in a statement released to the press. “Many passengers and employees evacuated onto the airfield and into the Central Terminal Area roadways,” the airport continued, noting that terminals 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 were eventually impacted by the upheaval.
Footage posted to social media shows passengers being evacuated onto the tarmac.
Video shows airline passengers evacuated onto Tarmac at LAX following unconfirmed reports of shots fired.https://t.co/0MmbOSKYoa
In a strange twist, multiple police officers were captured in video footage aggressively arresting a man who appeared to be dressed in a Zorro costume with their guns drawn.
Before things got really crazy - a man in a Zorro costume with a plastic sword was arrested. pic.twitter.com/COdNEIb1pL
Witness Paula Leonhauser told local media outlet KTLA, “I turned around and I saw a man in a Zorro costume … greeting what appeared to be his girlfriend … she said to him, 'I have one more bag to get. Wait out here.’ And he turned and went down the sidewalk a little bit... I don’t know whether that is the person who they were frightened of, but what happened next was the police yelled… at all of us to get down and get away.”
At 10:33pm, LAX tweeted that the man in the Zorro costume had been detained, but it was not immediately clear what connection he had to the false alarm.
Individual in Zorro costume has been detained by @LAAirportPD
Andy Neiman, the commanding officer of media relations for LAPD, later acknowledged that the reports of gunfire were false.
Report of shooting at LAX proven to be LOUD NOISES only No Shots Fired No Injuries investigation continues to locate source
According to LAX, at least 281 arrivals and departures were delayed and 27 flights diverted.
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.