Scandal continues to plague the Port Authority, the bi-state agency that is supposed to ensure the security and safe operation not only of America’s highest value terrorism target, the 16-acre World Trade Center complex, but also the bridges, tunnels, trains, ports and airports in New York and New Jersey, which handle about a third of the nation’s commercial air traffic.
Former Port Authority Chairman David Samson was forced to resign in disgrace in 2014 and pleaded guilty in July to bribery charges. The agency’s former deputy executive director, Bill Baroni, was convicted last month on conspiracy and fraud charges related to 2013’s Bridgegate lane-closure scandal.
But the deeper problem, revealed by dozens of interviews, official documents, private correspondence and a secret review of the bi-state agency, is the authority’s inability to manage its own police force — one of the most overpaid, poorly supervised and unresponsive forces in the nation. The 1,900-member force is also the most resistant to change, as an investigation by City Journal shows. For the agency’s inability to manage its cops has been a source of intense, if private, concern to PA officials for over five years.
Back in 2012, Port Authority Commissioner James Rubin was frustrated. Appointed to the bistate agency’s board by Gov. Cuomo a year earlier, he’d been around long enough to know the authority 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 PA’s leaders seemed unable to manage their own cops, claiming that the unions called the shots.
As head of the PA’s security committee, which oversees the agency’s police force and public-safety programs, Rubin decided to force the issue. He wrote to then–PA boss 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 PA’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, 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 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 PA’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 NYPD 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 Chertoff recommended were adopted. An examination of the PA police and its operations suggests the authority’s police remain poorly managed, overcompensated and hamstrung by work rules. These rules, negotiated by the unions and accepted by PA management, are a particular problem when it comes to security because they restrict the agency’s ability to deploy its police effectively.
Recent security breaches, including at the World Trade Center site, raise alarms about the effectiveness of public-safety functions at the Port Authority.
In August, a stampede at 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 PAPD’s frequent drills and training — officers must get live-fire training each year — the agency’s reaction seemed dysfunctional. While senior NYPD and PA 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 cellphone alert systems to alert patrons or tell them where to go,” Port Authority Police Benevolent Association boss Paul Nunziato said in a press release. In a separate letter, 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 PA police for the fiasco. A senior NYPD official said the PAPD needed “a lot more preparation on procedures.” The union said part of the problem was that not enough officers were on duty, but the average cost for employing a PA 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.
The burden of the police department’s costs weighs heavily on the authority. A detailed report of what PA police earn, compared with what neighboring police departments earn (prepared by the Citizens Budget Commission watchdog group), concluded in late 2012 that the PAPD, 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 PA’s $406 million public-safety budget. Within New York and New Jersey, only Nassau and Suffolk police were paid more. PA 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, PA cops 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. PA police earned from as much as 14 times the compensation of Jersey City cops to double that of senior NYPD officers. Senior PA 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 PA cops 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 PA compensation between 2008 and 2014 obtained by Open the Books, a watchdog group pressing for government transparency, is OT. “Overtime work for police at Port Authority has been out of control for years,” says Adam Andrzejewski, the group’s founder. OT 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. According to the Open the Books database, 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 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 Dunne, the authority’s first security chief, who confirmed PAPD OT costs were growing rapidly as he came on board: $80 million in 2011, $107 million in 2012 and $139 million in 2013. To get OT under control, Dunne and his then-deputy, Thomas Belfiore, hired the two largest police recruit classes in recent PA 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.
Overall, Belfiore says, the PA and its security department have made significant progress in reining in overtime and other expenses — but the 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, PA 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, 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.
Some counterterrorism experts say the PAPD 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 example is the contract provisions governing the authority’s K-9 unit, composed of some 28 dogs and handlers, which 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 PA’s kennels. In addition to getting the standard 75 minutes a day for meals and other breaks, 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 spokesman Robert 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.
Overturning such prerogatives is difficult at the PA, its officials complain, because of the union’s power. PA police enjoy 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 general, Michael Nestor, recently called the PAPBA “a consistent roadblock to investigations and to disciplinary actions,” adding, “officers routinely refuse to cooperate with investigations, including disciplinary matters.” The union, for its part, says Rule 3 has never stopped a criminal investigation and the right to refuse to answer questions in a disciplinary interview exists for all PA employees, unionized or not.
Authority officials and independent terrorism experts say Chertoff and his team oversaw the last sustained effort to wrest management control of the PA’s police force from its many contractual obligations. Dunne confirmed Chertoff’s group had warned him the PA 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 the Chertoff report, though lengthy, did not contain written recommendations. Rather, they explained, Chertoff conveyed his findings in meetings with senior PA officials. After reviewing the police force’s union contracts, according to sources, the Chertoff team lawyers unanimously called them, from a management standpoint, “the worst they had ever seen.” 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 PA’s governing board to adopt. In his letter, dated Oct. 18, 2012, he informed Chairman Samson that Baroni, then deputy executive director, had told him not a single commissioner appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie 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 piece originally appeared in City Journal.