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Policing the Port Authority

Podcast

Policing the Port Authority

January 4, 2017
Public safety
New York

City Journal senior editor Steve Malanga and contributing editor Judy Miller discuss some of the issues with the Port Authority Police Department, including a secret review of the department’s security readiness and the contentious relationship between Port Authority leaders and the police union.

Read Judy Miller’s full piece from the Autumn 2016 Issue of City Journal, “The New York Police Force That Doesn’t Work.”

Audio Transcript

Steve Malanga: Hello everyone.  My name is Steve Malanga, senior editor at City Journal.  The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was founded in 1921 to quell the squabbling between the two states for control over the New York Harbor.  It was conceived as a good government agency that was supposed to be organized to operate efficiently and beyond politics.  Today the Authority is responsible for operations and security for some of the largest transit and shipping hubs in the world, and for some of the region's most valuable real estate.  But it has been embroiled in controversy for decades.  City Journal has written several articles dedicated to problems at the Port Authority, from bloated budgets to unmanageable assets, to political corruption.  Our latest piece, The New York Police Force That Doesn't Work, is on controversy surrounding the law enforcement agency responsible for security at Port Authority properties, a force of 1,900 officers operating entirely separate from the NYPD or other state agencies.  The piece, written by Judy Miller, includes revelations about a till-now secret report which found that the Port Authority's security practices were profoundly deficient at every level in every key functional area.  Judy is a contributing editor to City Journal and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.  Before she was with us, Judy was a reporter with the New York Times, where she was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize.  Judy, thanks for joining us.

Judith Miller: Thank you Steve.

Steve Malanga: Now let's begin with a recent high profile case back in August at JFK Airport that some say illustrated the problems at the Port Authority Police Department.  There was a false alarm that provoked some fear that there was a terrorist attack in progress at the terminals.  How did security teams respond to this and what did it tell us about potential problems?

Judith Miller: Well I think the response fell far short of what anybody would expect from a response at the nation's airports fifteen years after 9/11.  I mean the response was completely uncoordinated, people were running in all directions, there was no single broadcast message warning people, one, about a potential threat, and then two, calming them down to assure them that there was no threat.  But more than that, it turned out that the Port Authority Police, who are supposed to be responsible for security at these airports, didn't even have access to the camera feed that was collecting information and supposed to be 24/7, right, but the police didn't even have access to that information and so they couldn't even figure out themselves what was going on at the facility they were supposed to protect.  So it was a mess and I think several of us were struck by the fact that it was made more of a mess and people were even more concerned after all New York and New Jersey officials said no problem here, everything is fine, move right along, you know.  The police responded well.  Well the fact of the matter is they didn't.  Even the union wrote letters complaining about the problems that they say which impeded the response.  So you know, that's just typical of what we get from the Port Authority Police.  And as you pointed out, Steve, these facilities are so crucial to New York.  We're talking about the bridges, the tunnels, the trains, the airports, the ports of New York and New Jersey, and the airports alone, which carry about you know, a third of all the commercial traffic in the country through these areas.  So deficiencies in policing and security should be of concern to everyone, not only those in the metropolitan region but everyone who flies through  New York airport.

Steve Malanga: Sure.  Now the thing is that obviously the thing about the Port Authority as an agency, its properties overlap the territory of New York State and New Jersey, and so the different police departments actually kind of share responsibility.  But what we've had here actually in New York though has been something of a turf war over property, especially in the city, such as at ground zero, the idea you know, the turf war over who has primary responsibility for these valuable properties.  Now some critics at the PA Police force say that the NYPD is far more qualified to take the lead at a place like ground zero.  Can you talk a little bit about why critics think the current division of labor is a problem?

Judith Miller: Well I think just the numbers tell you something about the story.  I mean you now have, after some increases, about 1,900 Port Authority policemen who are supposed to, some of whom are deployed to protect that iconic, high-value terrorist target in our city and now one of the biggest tourist attractions as well.  That 1,900, that's the total force versus a total NYPD force of 35,000; 1,000 of whom have been specially trained to handle counterterrorism activities.  And it just strikes a lot of people as nuts, to think that you can recreate in a mini version the capabilities of the NYPD and say well, they can you know, they are responsible for the most important target in the United States.  No, they shouldn't be.  And I think that that was something that Ray Kelly, the former police commissioner, understood and that he was you know kind of banging his head against a wall to try and get resolved.  Now, they have a sharing agreement now on who is going to patrol what and what each police force is going to do, but the problem is really that the NYPD is the agency.  It is the law enforcement agency which should be involved and should have top responsibility for this facility.  But why doesn't it?  Well, look at politics.  I mean what we learned during the famous Bridgegate trial over the summer and the fall was that the reason the Port Authority got primary jurisdiction over the World Trade Center is that Governor Chris Christie wanted the endorsement of the very powerful Port Authority Police union.  And because he wanted their endorsement, Governor Christie said that it would be over his dead body that anybody other than the Port Authority Police would ever have primary responsibility for that facility.  Now, we have to acknowledge that many, that proportionately and numerically, more Port Authority Police died at the World Trade Center site in 2001 but that still doesn't answer or address the question of you know, who is best suited to assure security at the facility.  And I think that you know, that shouldn't be decided based on a political pledge, or political factors, it should be decided on who has the capability.

Steve Malanga: Well you use the term you know, powerful, with respect to the - politically powerful - with respect to the police union there.  And as we're written about it in our previous articles, the Port Authority unions in general, because they do have control over key assets in the region, have accumulated an enormous amount of power.  In particular I wonder how do union contracts and union work rules potentially affect the Port Authority's ability to police its own properties?  And how does that compare to the kind of work rules that maybe we see elsewhere in the New York/New Jersey region?

Judith Miller: Well I think that this is one of the major factors, that a group called The Chertoff Group - that's named after the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff - he was hired in 2011 to assess the police and the Port Authority security operations and he was the one.  It was his report that found them so derelict and so unable to assume their responsibilities as charged.  And Chertoff found that the relationship between the union and the management, this very tense and unpleasant acrimonious relationship, and the number of concessions that management had made to the union basically made the Port Authority unable to supervise, and to manage, and to deploy its police effectively, that that role was effectively now being done by the union.  And it was one of their major criticisms.  And one of the solutions that Mr. Chertoff recommended was that basically the contracts that have been in place that hamstring, that so hamstring this management process, be renegotiated.  That they just be - we start again, because The Chertoff Group concluded that there was no way that the Port Authority Police would be able to do a really effective job of protecting these facilities unless some of these rules were revisited.  That of course hasn't happened because neither Governor Christie nor Governor Cuomo seems to have the effective management of Port Authority Police at the top of their political agendas.

Steve Malanga: Now, you mentioned the Chertoff report.  Now first of all I think it's important to point out that up until this point that report has really never been made public and, thanks to your reporting, you have at least a sense of some of the things that were said in that report and also that in fact a number of the Port Authority commissioners have, let's say, maybe complained -- I don't know if that's too strong a word…

Judith Miller: Right.

Steve Malanga: That they really haven't, that the Port Authority hasn't actually implemented many of the recommendations, so where are we now in terms of some of the key deficiencies?  I know that, among other things, the Port Authority has hired I guess you would call it a chief investigator...

Judith Miller: A security chief.

Steve Malanga: A security chief, right, over the police department itself, so that's one of the things that I think is a sense of progress, but what has he been able to accomplish?  There have been two of them now.  What have they been able to accomplish and what are some of the other things that need to be done?

Judith Miller: Right.  Well, Joe Dunne and Tom Gelfiore have done - these are both former NYPD policemen, police officers, by the way...

Steve Malanga: Talk about turf wars.

Judith Miller: Right.  They have been able to accomplish a great deal and they have done a good job insofar as they have been able to work within the constraints of these onerous contracts and traditions of the Port Authority, but what they haven't been able to do, and that even though they have been able to hire more people, and train them better, and institute more counterterrorism training, what they haven't been able to do is get into the work rules themselves.  So even they are stuck with this extraordinary overtime problem.  You know, in which, as Ken Lipper, who is one of the commissioners appointed by Andrew Cuomo, as he said to me in an interview, he said look, you know, there's a culture at the Port Authority Police in which people, actually younger officers, defer to older officers.  They give up overtime assignments and requests to the older officers so that the older officers can pad their pensions so that they can retire with a higher pension, and that's just the way the Port Authority always works.  And what this has done is it has meant that overtime costs and security costs at the Port Authority are out of control.  I mean we have you know, $300,000 a day in overtime, roughly.  Two million dollars a week, a hundred million dollars a year.  This is real money.  And every time you pay a toll or go through one of these facilities you are paying the results of that inefficiency.  And so yeah they have not been able to address either the work rules or the basic culture that leads to these inefficiencies.

Steve Malanga: Right.  And I think it is important to say, as you've pointed out, every time we cross a bridge or a tunnel in New York we are paying for this.

Judith Miller: Absolutely.  Everyone who does - a tourist, a resident, it doesn't matter.  But you know this is such an important institution.  And that both governors, because this is a bi-state agency, have permitted it to be so badly managed and out of control for so long, does not speak well of the management.  People love to blame the unions and yes, unions do what unions do.  They get the best possible payment, and treatment, and rules for their workers.  But it ultimately comes down to the Port Authority management saying this is a public agency and we are supposed to operate for the public good, and we're not going to give in on you know, demand X, Y, and Z.  And that just hasn't happened because neither governor has really put the safety and security of the people who use these facilities at the top of their political agendas.

Steve Malanga: Well clearly this is an important story.  Don't forget to check out Judy's article, The New York Police Force That Doesn't Work, which was in the Autumn issue of City Journal, and is on our website at City-Journal.org.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thank you, again, Judy.

Judith Miller: Thank you Steve.

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