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Opinion: Do We Need a Port Authority Police Department?

The PAPD’s dysfunction would be laughable were it not for the seriousness of its mission and the size of its budget

andrew sidamon-eristoff
Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff

Sometimes a possible solution to a complex problem is so obvious that it never attracts the serious attention and consideration it deserves. So it may be with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department (PAPD): After decades of studies, reports, and news articles documenting the PAPD’s high costs and manifest dysfunction, why not get rid of it altogether?

The PAPD’s dysfunction is hardly news. As Judith Miller and Alex Armlovich outline in an exhaustive and alarming article in the Autumn issue of City Journal, the PAPD’s relatively high labor costs, extraordinarily restrictive union contracts, and ongoing labor-management friction have resulted in a security force that is “poorly managed, overcompensated, and hamstrung by work rules.” According to an independent review commissioned by Port Authority management in 2011, the PAPD is “profoundly deficient at every level, in every key functional area.”

The PAPD’s dysfunction would be laughable were it not for the seriousness of its mission and the size of its budget. But this is no small joke. The PAPD is charged with securing some of the nation’s highest-value targets in Manhattan and throughout the region. Per Miller and Armlovich, the PAPD’s 1,900 officers routinely burn more than 700,000 hours of overtime a year at a cost well in excess of $100 million, while the Port Authority’s public safety budget exceeds $650 million or 22 percent of the agency’s operating budget.

Change within the current structure and environment is unlikely. The PAPD’s main police union wields legendary political clout on both sides of the Hudson and has built an impressive track record of successful resistance to previous reform initiatives. Under the shadow of Bridgegate, and consumed by bitter interstate arguments over the agency’s $32 billion capital plan, the Port Authority’s distracted management has neither the capacity nor the political will to take on the issue of reforming the PAPD.

Borrowing from current political lexicon, maybe it’s time to drain the swamp.

What I am proposing, specifically? Reflecting my background as a former political appointee in both New York and New Jersey, my suggestion is, by design, bureaucratic: The Port Authority should commission and make public an independent study as to the feasibility and ramifications of disbanding the PAPD and having local and state law enforcement provide security services to the Port Authority’s assets in its place. The study should explore several scenarios, including having the Port Authority contract with the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the New Jersey State Police and/or local law enforcement in New Jersey, and possibly private security services.

If history is any guide, we can anticipate a series of reactions and objections.

First, the PAPD union will go absolutely berserk and claim that it would be illegal under the congressionally approved interstate compact that created the Port Authority in 1921, as well as the separate laws of both states, to dissolve the PAPD and its existing (though expired) union contracts. Maybe so; maybe not. This wouldn’t be the first complex restructuring, public or private, that impacts union contracts. I am pretty sure that the issue will be less than cut-and-dried and that some top-flight legal analysis would illuminate the debate.

Second, we will be told that local law enforcement lacks the specialized experience and expertise to protect the Port Authority’s high-risk assets such as the Freedom Tower, trans-Hudson bridges and tunnels, and the port terminals. Although I am no expert on policing and security, the fact that the highly respected and much, much larger NYPD already protects many of our nation’s highest-risk targets, including the Freedom Tower in uneasy conjunction with the PAPD, gives me at least some confidence that local law enforcement might be up to the task, and quite possibly an improvement over the current dysfunction. Moreover, the New Jersey State Police is a capable and respected organization that could step up on the New Jersey side, with or without local participation as appropriate.

Third, we will be told that it would be a major mistake to undermine the principle of unified command in security and policing. True enough, but why wouldn’t it be possible for the various parties involved to enter into contracts and/or operational agreements that would preserve a unified command, particularly in emergency situations? Surely, clever minds could figure it out.

Fourth — and this will be a strong Hail Mary argument — critics and nervous politicians will voice sincere concerns that whatever replaces the PAPD may not provide the same amount of “coverage and protection” to Port Authority assets and facilities. This is reminiscent of the decades-long arguments against merging the former New York City Housing Authority and New York City Transit police departments into the NYPD prior to and during Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s term in the 1990s. Through a combination of logical argument, raw political skill, and determined leadership, Giuliani overcame powerful resistance to force what now must be regarded as highly successful mergers, with no discernable reduction in coverage or protection.

Finally, the Housing Authority and Transit police merger sagas illustrate an important point: Reformers need to understand the role of politics and be prepared to play a very long game. Even the best-articulated, most authoritative independent study will do little more than start a raging and lengthy political debate. Ultimately, nothing will happen unless and until both governors agree, which seems unlikely in the near term. But in the interim, I believe it would be positive to have the issue and debate out in the open, forcing stakeholders and policymakers to react and take a stand. That, in turn, would create at least some pressure on the governors, Port Authority managers, and unions to pursue incremental reforms. Incremental progress is still progress.

Let the debate begin!

A former New Jersey state treasurer, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff has held cabinet-level appointive office in New York City and New York state as well as New Jersey. He is also a former member of the New York City Council.

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