News & Politics

Why Do Port Authority Commissioners Have Badges, Anyway?

Caren Turner might still have her job today if not for a 1928 decision to hire bridge police

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The viral video of now-former Port Authority commissioner Caren Turner bullying two cops in Tenafly, New Jersey, last month after they made a routine traffic stop on a car in which her daughter was a passenger — flashing a badge, and demanding that the officers address her as “Commissioner” — may have prompted some questions, like: What, exactly, does a Port Authority commissioner do? And why does it warrant a law enforcement badge?

Let’s start at the very beginning, which is the only way to explain this whole ridiculousness. In 1921, the U.S. Congress approved the creation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the nation’s first interstate authority, as a way to maintain critical port facilities and transportation infrastructure on either side of the Hudson without dipping into state budgets or being stalled by local bureaucracy. Today, the Port Authority manages properties across about 1,500 square miles of New York and New Jersey, including the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels; the George Washington Bridge; the PATH trains; Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports; Port Authority bus terminal; the World Trade Center; a handful of seaports; and more.

(Sometimes, Port Authority police officers are tasked with aiding in terrorism prevention. Other times, they are tasked with finding lost cats. In other words, it’s an important job.)

A twelve-member board of commissioners oversees what the New York Times has referred to as a “sprawling and secretive agency.” The governors of New Jersey and New York, in order to maintain balance between the states, appoint these commissioners, with each serving a six-year term (though some have been reappointed to subsequent terms). Commissioners do not receive a salary, and these appointments have usually been seen as a political favor. (In the past the position has come with the benefits of free tolls for life and VIP escorts at airports. And there’s also the chance to oversee hiring decisions for a 7,000-person staff. Uncle Joe’s third cousin’s daughter needs a job? Put her in touch.) The state senate of the appointing governor confirms each commissioner, and the governors have the right to veto the decisions of their own appointees.

Commissioners oversee committees on finance, audit, operations, security, planning, and governance and ethics — this last, ironically, being the post that Turner held at the time of her conversation with the less-than-impressed Tenafly officers. They negotiate labor contracts with about 500,000 employees — which includes the airport workers’ union, police union, toll collectors, PATH train conductors, and many contractors — and are quoted at promotion ceremonies. They commission safety reports (and have been held accountable by courts when those reports are ignored) and lobby for or award contracts (often generating personal profit, though recently they’ve been more forthcoming about conflicts of interest). They’ve also been known to shut down toll lanes (that’s right, Bridgegate) and to dig in their heels to defend their governor’s wishes, despite the authority’s original vision as one free from local politics. At times, they do balk at their governors’ plans. In March 2017, a former commissioner was convicted of bribing United Airlines to start a direct flight to South Carolina, where he had a home.

All that is to say, the commissioners find plenty of ways to fill their time. But how, exactly, do any of these responsibilities warrant the need for a law enforcement badge?

Here’s our best guess: In 1928, the authority added a forty-member police force to monitor two of the bridges. Today, the PAPD is 1,700 officers strong (not 4,000, as Turner claimed to the Tenafly police), making it the largest transit-related police force in the U.S. Just as mayors technically lead their local police forces, the Port Authority Board of Commissioners is technically the head of the PAPD. As Port Authority spokesperson Ben Branham told Politico, the commissioners have been receiving these so-called golden badges for decades “for the purposes of identification, including during emergency situations.” Thanks to Turner’s behavior, the policy is now under review. “The Chief Security Officer has been instructed to review the history of this policy and explore changes to it, including potential elimination,” Branham said.

The badges call to mind the honorary commissioner and deputy commissioner cards doled out by the NYPD to wealthy benefactors. Many towns consider it unethical — and some have even banned the practice — to give the mayor or other elected officials an actual badge. New Jersey lawmakers are now moving to do the same with Port Authority officials. Per state Senator Vin Gopal, “If they are not law enforcement, they should not have these badges.”

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