In the newest episode of The Layover With LAAPOA, LAAPOA President Marshall McClain sits down with retired 27-year Port Authority police officer Bobby Egbert. Egbert currently serves as the public information officer for the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association (PAPBA), the union representing Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) police officers. He is also a 9/11 World Trade Center first responder veteran.
In honor of the 21st anniversary of the terror attacks, Egbert shared an unflinching account of what he and other first responders experienced on 9/11 and in the aftermath in a piece entitled “My 9/11 — Well, What I Remember of It” in the September issue of American Police Beat magazine. In The Layover, he provides more insight on his story, as well as the profound impacts that 9/11 has had on the nation’s law enforcement and first responder communities, touching on PTSD/PTSI, national security and more.
Tune in to learn more about Egbert, his law enforcement career and his experiences as a union representative. The interview can be viewed in the video above.
Here are a few highlights from the episode:
A Cop and a Union Rep
Egbert served as a police officer for the PAPD, the largest transit police department in the country, overseeing the safety of one of the biggest transit hubs in the world. Egbert was also a union representative for more than half of his career, serving as a delegate, trustee and chairman of the board of trustees for the PAPBA. Prior to becoming a police officer, Egbert shares that he earned a degree in journalism and worked briefly as a journalist. He used that background to help craft PAPBA’s innovative media relations platform, which was based on “not waiting for the media to come to them” but getting out in front of the story and shaping their own narrative. (McClain notes that this influential strategy is still being emulated by public safety unions to this day.) Egbert says media relations wasn’t part of his elected responsibilities, just something he wanted to take on. When he decided to retire from the PAPD and not seek re-election in the union, PAPBA President Paul Nunziato told Egbert that he “didn’t want to lose the media relations thing I do, so they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I moved up my retirement nine months.”
PAPD vs. NYPD
“In my job dealing with the media, I often say to reporters, ‘You guys think there’s only two police departments in this country — the NYPD and the LAPD — the second largest one, Chicago, isn’t even on your radar. There are 18,000 police departments in this country; we’re all trained the same way, we all do the exact same job, there’s no difference,” Egbert says. In his media duties, he often has to distinguish the PAPD from the NYPD. The big difference between the two agencies, he explains, is not only their size — the PAPD has approximately 2,200 members compared to the NYPD’s 36,000-plus force — but where they operate. “They both operate in New York City. The difference is that the PAPD also works in New Jersey,” he says. “We’re unique in law enforcement in that every PAPD officer is sworn in two states and has total, complete police officer powers in both states. The downside is, you have to know the laws of both states. The procedural laws and the criminal laws are totally different. When it comes to testing for promotions, etc., it’s also different.”
Stressors of the Job
Egbert says that you can’t talk about mental health in law enforcement without speaking about the stressors that come with being a police officer. “The stress is not what we face on the street,” he notes. “The stress is on the inside; it’s the administration, it’s the constant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ and that’s what policing’s all about. You have to make the decisions when you’re on the job, in the incident, and in a split second you have to make the decision to do whatever has to be done. There are many who’ll say it’s the wrong decision, but they weren’t there; they didn’t have the split second to make that decision.” If he could change one thing about the job, Egbert would like to see “more of an understanding by the department of what their employees face. They seem to forget that as they move up the ladder.” A lack of understanding by department leaders, he says, leads officers to question their own decisions and adds immensely to the pressure. “The second-guessing is a big problem, because the first person who second-guesses you is yourself. We’re always wondering if we did the right thing, and that goes back to the administration again — am I going to be disciplined for this? Is it going to cost me money? Will I be suspended?”
Among the nearly 3,000 people who died in the September 11 terror attacks were 37 PAPD officers — the largest-ever loss by one department in a single incident — and 71 officers from seven local, state and federal agencies, along with 343 New York firefighters. “The losses law enforcement suffered were the largest in the history of American law enforcement,” Egbert says, adding that prior to his APB article, “I never wrote anything about my experiences on September 11. … When people find out I was there on September 11, they always want to know, ‘Well, what was it like?’ And my only response has ever been, ‘Well, it was a difficult day.’”
This year, he thought it was time to write something. The article not only coincides with the 21st anniversary of the attacks but also with National Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, which APB dedicated a special section to in September. “What I wanted to do was keep it in line with the mental health issue, and I thought my story probably blended well with that, because I don’t have much recollection of the entire day I was on scene. My story is not about heroics or courage; it’s about a cop who’s scared, who was petrified, but performed, as we all did.”
In Egbert’s discussion with McClain, he shares stories of heroism by first responders on that fateful day, including the selfless actions of PAPD Captain Kathy N. Mazza, the first female PAPD officer killed in the line of duty. She was a “bulldog of a person and a sweetheart at the same time,” Egbert recalls. He also discusses the aftermath of 9/11 and the creation of the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act,” federal legislation that provides financial assistance to those who suffered physical harm or the families of those who were killed as a result of the attacks.
“What I always like to say about us is, we work with a quiet confidence. We don’t brag about what we do, we just do it,” Egbert says of how he’d like the PAPD to be remembered. “Transportation policing, certainly airport policing, is very difficult. The old concept of foot patrol still exists in transportation policing, and you’re surrounded by thousands of people all the time and things just explode around you … airports and transportation facilities are just incredibly busy places and, unfortunately, they’re magnets for criminal activity. They’re not going to make television programs about the PAPD. That’s because we work with quiet confidence. No other police agency does what we do, and we preserve that very well.”