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The New York Police Force That Doesn’t Work

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The New York Police Force That Doesn’t Work

Port Authority cops: the expensive weak link in the region’s public-safety network Autumn 2016
Public safety
New York

Port Authority commissioner James Rubin was frustrated. Appointed to the bistate agency’s board by New York governor Andrew Cuomo a year earlier (in 2011), he’d been around long enough to know that the Authority—charged with ensuring the safe operation of bridges, tunnels, trains, airports, and ports in New York and New Jersey, and with securing the nation’s highest-value terrorist target, the 16-acre World Trade Center complex—was a complete mess. Spending on security had doubled since 9/11 and now consumed roughly one-fourth of the agency’s massive budget. Police overtime, in particular, was soaring, but the Port Authority’s leaders seemed unable to manage their own cops, contending that the unions called the shots.

As head of the Port Authority’s security committee, which oversees the agency’s police force and public-safety programs, Rubin decided to force the issue. He wrote to then–Port Authority chairman David Samson, reminding him of the exhaustive evaluation of security policies, personnel, and technology that Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security director who now heads a security-consulting firm, had conducted in 2011. The Chertoff team’s disturbing conclusion, he wrote, citing the secret report, whose key findings have never previously been disclosed, was that the Port Authority’s security practices were “profoundly deficient at every level, in every key functional area.”

The main target of the report’s “devastating judgment,” as Rubin called it, was the Port Authority police force. Summarizing his findings in a closed meeting, Chertoff had told the board that the police department’s leadership was not only “derelict” but “wholly unprepared for security responsibility.” In light of this finding, Rubin wrote in his letter to Samson, a copy of which was obtained by City Journal, it was “imperative that we act expeditiously to remedy the problems identified.” Though neither Rubin nor Chertoff nor their legal consultants and analysts would respond to calls for comment, Chertoff’s team reportedly recommended that the board hire a chief security officer, who would centralize security functions. But this alone would not be enough, the report (and Rubin) stressed: the new security chief couldn’t reform or control his force, much less fulfill the Port Authority’s security mandate, if the board failed to empower him by adopting sweeping structural and legal changes—especially to contracts with its police unions.

Though the board appointed Joseph Dunne, a respected former New York Police Department official, as its first security chief soon after Rubin’s impassioned plea for change, and Dunne and his successor hired more cops and tried to curb costs, almost none of the broader structural and legal reforms that Chertoff recommended were adopted. An examination of the Port Authority police and its operations—including correspondence secured under the Freedom of Information Act, other independent reviews of police performance and compensation, and interviews with more than a dozen veteran counterterrorism experts, scholars, and law-enforcement officials—suggests that the Authority’s police remain poorly managed, overcompensated, and hamstrung by work rules. These rules, negotiated by the unions and accepted by Port Authority management, are a particular problem when it comes to security because they restrict the agency’s ability to deploy its police effectively.

The police force’s woes can’t be separated from those of the scandal-prone Port Authority and its growing politicization. Political patronage infuses the agency—ironically, in that the Port Authority was born in the Progressive era and intended by its architects to exemplify expert nonpolitical governance. (See “The Port Authority Leviathan,” Winter 2016.) New Jersey governor Chris Christie, for instance, initially won the loyalty of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association (PAPBA) early in 2013 by promising to ensure that Authority police, and not the NYPD, would be in charge of security at the World Trade Center’s new Freedom Tower. The Port Authority has long viewed Ground Zero as an iconic part of its domain, since 37 of its cops died there on 9/11, almost twice as many as the NYPD lost. But Christie’s pledge also assured the creation of hundreds of new jobs and dues-paying members for the union, which now represents some 1,500 of the Port Authority’s 1,900 cops. (The main contract, expired since 2010, continues in force.)

The governor’s vow, following the union’s endorsement, that he would “never—not ever on my watch” let the NYPD protect the Trade Center site set off a bitter turf war with then-NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly, who refused to accept a marginal role for his officers at the complex. The two police departments eventually hammered out a “memorandum of understanding,” calling for shared policing authority and spending. Relations improved further after Kelly retired and was succeeded by William J. Bratton (who has just himself retired). But New York cops’ dislike of their Port Authority counterparts continues to simmer, reinforced by a historical rivalry and by resentment of the Authority force’s far more generous compensation and retirement benefits and less demanding working hours.

Patronage also played a role in a scandal in which the Port Authority police union has been implicated—Bridgegate, which arose from a decision by Christie’s aides to order lane closings and cause massive gridlock at the George Washington Bridge, the nation’s busiest motor-vehicle crossing, to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for refusing to endorse the governor’s reelection. David Samson, the chairman to whom Rubin complained and Governor Christie’s highest-ranking appointee, resigned in disgrace in 2014 and pleaded guilty in July to bribery charges. Chertoff, to whom he had awarded the sole-source, $1.3 million contract to review the Authority’s operations, nonetheless served as his lead attorney. Governor Christie’s other senior appointee, Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, went on trial in September for Bridgegate-related charges.

PAPBA head Paul Nunziato initially defended the lane closures, telling the press that he had come up with the idea to study new traffic patterns at the bridge. But the subsequent discovery of e-mails by Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly calling for “some traffic problems in Fort Lee” demolished Nunziato’s story. He wound up under investigation, suspected of having helped facilitate the closures to curry favor with the governor. Neither he nor anyone from the union has been accused of wrongdoing, but a key witness in the Bridgegate trial testified that Nunziato offered to lie to protect Christie’s appointees.

Recent security breaches, including at the World Trade Center site, raise alarms about the effectiveness of public-safety functions at the Port Authority. In 2013, four men, one of whom worked in construction at the World Trade Center site, BASE-jumped off the Freedom Tower and filmed their stunt. Soon after, a 16-year-old fascinated by the tower donned a hard hat, scrambled through a hole in the fence, and rode to the 88th floor with the help of a construction-elevator operator, though he had no ID. Other incidents arouse concern. In 2014, nine rookie Port Authority police, celebrating their police-academy graduation, were fired, and three of their supervisors disciplined, after getting drunk and disorderly at an infamous Hoboken bar.

Even deeper problems were evident in August, when a stampede at John F. Kennedy Airport was triggered by false reports of a terrorist attack in Terminal 1 and Terminal 8, the latter staying closed for several hours. Despite the Port Authority’s frequent drills and training—its police must get live-fire training each year, which even the NYPD doesn’t mandate—the agency’s reaction seemed dysfunctional. While senior NYPD and Port Authority police praised their own officers’ response, calling it “textbook,” the police union and several of those caught up in the melee strenuously disagreed. There was “no addressable signage; police had no access to public address systems, or cell phone alert systems to alert patrons or tell them where to go,” Nunziato said in a press release. In a separate letter provided to City Journal, he blasted the Authority for having no plan to communicate with the public and for allowing information from social media—“wrong, misdirected and without confirmation”—to fill the vacuum.

Other observers, however, blamed the Port Authority police for the fiasco. A senior NYPD official told the Daily News that the PAPD needed “a lot more preparation on procedures.” The union said that part of the problem was that not enough officers were on duty, but the average cost for employing a Port Authority cop has risen so much that hiring new employees has become exorbitant; regional airport budgets have come under fire for their bloat. United Airlines filed a complaint with the FAA, which singled out police compensation as a key factor.

Others have complained about the cost and effectiveness of the PA police. In the 2013 New York mayoral race, Republican candidate Joe Lhota said that he had long had reservations about the PAPD’s competence. He later apologized for calling them “mall cops.”

Relations between the agency and its police union have been contentious for decades, as official correspondence from the early 1990s, provided by a former Port Authority official, reveals. As far back as the 1960s, unions were contesting the agency’s efforts, over a 15-year transition period, to let civilians perform such nonspecialized duties as collecting tolls and manning tunnel catwalk booths. In a 1990 memo to Stanley Brezenoff, then the agency’s executive director, Louis LaCapra, the human-resources director, grumbled about the unions’ successful pushback, starting in 1978, against civilianization. LaCapra noted that the unions had blocked the creation of new civilian guard posts at the World Trade Center and at Port Newark and had forced the Authority to stop civilians from abandoning cars at Pier 40. Arbitration decisions had given police “the exclusive right to drive ambulances at Newark airport,” he added, which police had never before done there. The union also claimed on behalf of its members the responsibility for “making first contact with homeless persons at Authority facilities, to the exclusion of social workers or anyone else.” These measures increased costs and lessened efficiency.

Relations between the agency and its police union have been contentious for decades, as official correspondence reveals.

In a memo to the commissioners from July 1990, Port Authority executive director Stephen Berger observed that it was apparent “for some time” that the agency’s police unions had a “radically different view of themselves and their mission than does the management of the Port Authority.” A consultant hired to assess what was then known as the Public Safety Department agreed that the “loyalties of many of our police officers are to the unions, not to the Port Authority” and that the police saw themselves as “on a mission to enforce federal and state criminal laws, rather than to protect life and property at, and to facilitate the operations of, Port Authority facilities.” If there was a “justification for our having a separate police force,” Berger wrote, it was to meet the agency’s specific needs. The police’s focus on “catching bad guys,” he argued, “diverts police attention and resources away from the areas in which they could actually contribute most effectively to the safety and security of people using our facilities.” The emphasis on arresting large numbers of people for minor offenses at the bus terminal, for instance, often left “inadequate numbers of officers patrolling the building.” This, in turn, prompted a “general impression of disorder” and of “insecurity among travelers, tenants, and others at the Terminal,” he wrote.

Police unions, Berger lamented, had taken a “remarkably insular view” of such issues. Berger’s effort to defuse tensions by meeting with union leaders to explain their “conflicting visions” had failed. “Predictably, but unfortunately,” he wrote, “the immediate reaction has been resistance.” During the next few months, Berger intended to “re-establish management control of police functions in a number of critical areas,” including routine security functions at the World Trade Center, patrolling airport parking lots, abandoned-car duty, and contacts with the homeless. If the police union refused to compromise and relinquish such “minimum basically civilian functions,” he concluded, he would urge the commissioners to consider whether the agency’s police “could and perhaps should be part of the general policing obligations” of the NYPD and the New Jersey State Police. Other functions, he argued, could “clearly be performed with equal or greater effectiveness, at lower cost by civilians.” But based on his experience with the Authority’s police unions, he concluded, he could not be “optimistic about our ability to secure a satisfactory outcome.”

Others share that skepticism. Current commissioner Kenneth Lipper said that he did not know whether it would be possible to dissolve the PAPD and have local and state law enforcement and private contractors ensure security: “Is the NYPD willing to take over these functions? Does the contract permit it? Would we get the same coverage and protection? Would both governors permit it?”

Today, Port Authority management missteps and union victories continue to shape staffing assignments for PAPD officers—most dubiously, for the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) “cadres.” Thanks to a decades-old contractual obligation between the Authority and the union that requires police officers to perform firefighting and rescue duty at airports—an arrangement in effect at no other U.S. airports—cops who fight fires and do rescue work at Authority airports have been trained for double duty. As a result, they’re paid a lot extra—up to $144,000 per year. But in 2012, the FAA fined the Port Authority for misreporting training and for failing to assign police who were trained as firefighters to the airports. The federal agency also barred those assigned ARFF duty at airports from doing patrol duty and other police work. Some Authority officials hoped to assign fire and rescue personnel who were paid much less than expensive cops. But the union got wind of this, and in a 2013 settlement got the Authority to agree to assign cops to these posts, though they could no longer go on patrol.

The result has been a dramatic rise in total security expenditures, including overtime and new police to replace those lost to ARFF. According to public documents, the aviation budget department containing the ARFF team was responsible for $154 million of the $211 million hike in Authority-wide security spending planned between 2009 and 2016—or roughly 70 percent of the increase. The union blames Port Authority management for running afoul of the FAA. “This was management’s fault for losing months of firefighting training records,” said Robert Egbert, the union’s spokesman. If management wanted to take the jobs away from the union, it was obligated to enter a negotiation. “This was yet another terrible management mistake,” he said. But the union has fought to hang on to its expensive prerogatives.

The burden of the police department’s costs weighs heavily on the Port Authority. A detailed report of what Port Authority police earn, compared with what neighboring police departments earn (prepared by the Citizens Budget Commission, a New York City–based public watchdog group), concluded in late 2012 that the Port Authority Police Department, then about 1,700 strong, was already one of the country’s largest and most richly compensated law-enforcement units. At the time, the commission estimated that payments to police constituted about $372 million of the Port Authority’s $406 million public-safety budget. Within New York and New Jersey, only the Nassau and Suffolk County police were paid more. Port Authority senior officers received hourly pay 25 percent to 48 percent above that of senior officers at neighboring municipal police forces. Excluding overtime, pensions, and health benefits, average salaries for rank-and-file police topped $108,157 after six years of service and rose to $117,884 in their 25th year. And unlike officers in New Jersey, Port Authority police don’t contribute to their health insurance, a benefit that can add an amount comparable to 50 percent of their base salaries to their compensation, the CBC reported.

Supplemental pay made compensation disparities even more pronounced. Port Authority police earned from as much as 14 times the compensation of Jersey City cops to double that of senior NYPD officers. Senior Port Authority police earned 23 percent more than federal agents, and between 32 percent and 57 percent more than New York and New Jersey state troopers. Yet Port Authority police worked fewer hours a year than officers in other police forces, with more days off and shorter tours.

A consistent factor in this pay gap, according to an analysis of Port Authority compensation between 2008 and 2014 obtained by Open the Books, a watchdog group pressing for greater government transparency, is overtime. “Overtime work for police at Port Authority has been out of control for years,” says Adam Andrzejewski, the group’s founder. Overtime costs at the agency over the past seven years have averaged roughly $300,000 a day, $2 million a week, and more than $100 million a year, much of that earned by the police. City Journal’s Steven Malanga describes a typical example, culled from Open the Books data. Thanks largely to overtime sweeteners provided by the Port Authority, one police lieutenant who retired in 2013 with an annual salary of $129,000 began collecting the following year a lifetime pension of $172,000, or one-third above his base pay. (See “Bloated, Broke, and Bullied,” Spring 2016.) According to the Open the Books database, public-safety employees are extremely well compensated, even within Port Authority ranks. Between 2008 and 2014, seven of the top 15 most highly compensated Authority employees worked in security: three police sergeants, two police lieutenants, and two rank-and-file police officers. Their total compensation—which includes base pay, overtime, comp-time cash-in, longevity bonus, shift-differential payments, time-off pay, unspecified retro-payments and one- time payments, FICA pickup payments, and “all other payments”—ranged from $324,000 to $403,000.

Containing overtime was a priority for Joseph Dunne, the Authority’s first security chief. “Oscar Tango,” Dunne said in an interview in the spring of 2014, using police jargon for overtime, “has a lot to do with what gets done. That’s just a fact of things.” The same was true for the NYPD, he added, but his former employer’s overtime costs per capita are far lower than those of the Port Authority. Dunne confirmed that the PAPD’s overtime costs were growing rapidly as he came on board: $80 million in 2011, $107 million in 2012, and $139 million in 2013.

To get overtime under control, Dunne and his then-deputy, Thomas Belfiore, another NYPD veteran who succeeded him in the PA’s top security post, hired the two largest police recruit classes in recent Port Authority history, adding up to 450 new officers. Between 2012 and 2016, they also hired 18 law-enforcement officers from outside the force to fill senior ranks. Only one of the rank-and-file police represented by Nunziato’s PAPBA applied for promotion, since it would mean the loss of overtime.

Overall, Belfiore says, the Port Authority and its security department have made significant progress in reining in overtime and other expenses—but the Port Authority’s proposed budget documents, found on its website, suggest a different story. Though the PAPD overtime budget was briefly curtailed in 2015 to 738,000 hours—and overtime through March, Port Authority officials say, is below its projected level—the planned overtime budget for the entire year has risen to 1,041,000 hours—higher than in 2014, despite the employment of hundreds of new cops who were supposed to “right-size” the department. Commissioner Kenneth Lipper, from New York, noted: “Overtime costs are largely police-related. And that’s because of contractual issues and a culture within the police department.”

Lipper added, “When junior people are offered overtime, they tend not to take it and leave it for the senior police, where it’s embedded in their pensions. That really drives up costs.” The agency’s security budget continues to grow, increasing from $454 million in 2009 to $645 million in 2015. The projected security budget for 2016 is $662 million, or 22 percent of the proposed operating budget.

The Port Authority Police Department’s 400-page contract contains onerous work rules that interfere with performance and drive up costs, including a stipulation that K-9 officers must get a paid hour each day to play with their dogs. (BILL TURNBULL/NY DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

Some counterterrorism experts say that the Port Authority’s police will never be reformed until management wrests control from the union, a view echoed by several top security officials who know the police force best. Belfiore and Dunne, for instance, point to specific examples of contractual terms that limit the force’s productivity. The Authority, said Dunne, has yet to control unpredictable, unlimited sick time, which is guaranteed by union rules. Another problem is management’s limited ability to control police deployments. Under the union contract, rank-and-file police bid on assignments, which, with few exceptions, get awarded according to seniority. So “you won’t always get the people best suited for an assignment,” Belfiore says.

To take another example of onerous rules, the contract provisions governing the Authority’s K-9 unit, composed of some 28 dogs and handlers, reduce the number of functional hours that officers work. The dogs, Belfiore said, must be transported to and from a handler’s home to his assignment at a transport hub or the World Trade Center, or, in the event of vacation or rest time, to one of the Authority’s kennels. In addition to getting the standard 75 minutes a day for meals and other breaks, moreover, K-9 handlers get a special “K-9 hour,” usually the last hour of every day, to care for their dogs. While the Transportation Security Administration offsets some of these expenses, it doesn’t cover all of them, Belfiore says. The union’s Egbert defends the K-9 provisions. Unlike people, he said, dogs cannot work an eight-hour shift. “They must be hydrated, fed, and get rest,” he said. “A dog is a being.”

Overturning such prerogatives is difficult at the Port Authority, its officials complain, because of the union’s power. Port Authority police enjoy numerous protections, including a provision of the bylaws, known as Rule 3, that gives them the right to refuse to cooperate with internal investigations. The agency’s inspector, Michael Nestor, recently told the Bergen Record that the PAPBA is “a consistent roadblock to investigations and to disciplinary actions,” adding that “officers routinely refuse to cooperate with investigations, including disciplinary matters.” Earlier this summer, the Bergen Record reported, the union persuaded friendly New Jersey legislators to kill a bill that would have eliminated Rule 3. The union, for its part, says that Rule 3 has never stopped a criminal investigation and that the right to refuse to answer questions in a disciplinary interview exists for all Port Authority employees, unionized or not.

Port Authority officials and independent terrorism experts say that Chertoff and his team oversaw the last sustained effort to wrest management control of the Port Authority’s police force from its many contractual obligations. Dunne confirmed that Chertoff’s group had warned him that the Port Authority police suffered from a lack of senior management. “Some of our senior officers were running two or three commands,” he said, “and you just can’t do it. It’s impossible.”

Two sources said that the Chertoff report, though lengthy, did not contain written recommendations. Rather, they explained, Chertoff conveyed his findings in meetings with senior Port Authority officials. After reviewing the police force’s union contracts, as one source reported and another confirmed, the Chertoff team lawyers unanimously called them, from a management standpoint, “the worst they had ever seen.” Mike Delikat, a partner at Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe; Daniel Murphy, Jr., a partner at Putney, Twombly, Hall & Hirson; and Robert W. Lynn, now New York City’s commissioner of the Office of Labor Relations, called the contracts “massive giveaways.” They reportedly also agreed that the contracts should be renegotiated to bring them more in line with those of comparable police departments. The Chertoff team formulated a substantial reform plan, along with a resolution to implement it, which Chertoff discussed with several commissioners.

It was this resolution that Rubin tried, once more, to persuade the Port Authority’s governing board to adopt. In his letter, dated October 18, 2012, he informed Chairman Samson that Baroni, then the deputy executive director of the agency, had told him that no Christie-appointed commissioners who were members of his security committee would even agree to discuss the resolution. “I regret that,” Rubin wrote. “Every week we delay empowering the new CSO [chief security officer], we are delaying the actions our consultants say are necessary to keep our facilities safe.” Four years later, the Port Authority police force remains the weak link in the New York metro area’s public-safety profile.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism. This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Port Authority. 

Top Photo: False reports of a shooting at JFK Airport in August set off panic among travelers, left confused by lack of communication by Port Authority police. (BRIGITTE DUSSEAU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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