SAN DIEGO -- Elitism is ugly. If you want to know how ugly, just watch the widely circulated video of an arrogant, obnoxious and profane political appointee scolding a couple of police officers during a traffic stop in Tenafly, New Jersey.
The cringe-worthy encounter occurred over Easter weekend, and the dashcam video -- which has now been watched by more than 2 million people -- was released a few weeks later by the Tenafly Police Department.
Caren Turner is now a former commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates bridges, tunnels, ports and airports in both states. Whatever power comes with that position appears to have gone straight to her head.
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Soon after the video surfaced, Turner resigned.
Good to hear. Let’s just say that, during the eight-minute encounter along a busy freeway, this public official didn’t exactly cover herself in glory. Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole called Turner’s behavior “profoundly disturbing,” “demeaning” and “deplorable.”
He’s right on all counts. And as the officers repeatedly told Turner after she flashed her credentials, she was not even involved in the traffic stop. She was called to the scene by her daughter, who was one of the passengers in the vehicle. The car was stopped, cited and towed due to expired registration.
Does the Tenafly Police Department always tow cars with expired registrations? I’ve been pulled over for expired tags before, and all I got was a ticket. Why didn’t that happen in this case?
Turner managed to remain calm until the 6:45 mark on the video, appearing as if she just wanted to verbally joust with the officers. She insisted on knowing why the car had been stopped. The officers wouldn’t tell her. Since the driver was 18 and a legal adult, they said, they had already explained it to the driver. If she really wanted to know, they said, she could ask the driver.
As Turner became more agitated, she descended into the swamp of elitism. “You can’t put a sentence together,” she told the officers. She also felt the need to point out that two of the people in the car were “Ph.D. students at MIT and Yale.”
Turner came totally unglued at the 7:15 mark. When she was told by the lead officer -- Matthew Savitsky, who did most of the talking -- that she “may” now take her daughter home, she lost it. “You may not tell me when to take my child,” she screamed at Savitsky. “You may shut the [expletive] up!” She also called both officers “pathetic” and a “disappointment.”
The now ex-commissioner was way out of line. She made a fool of herself, and she came across as a high-falutin’ snob with a disdain for lowly civil servants.
However, there is more to this story. Tenafly Police Chief Robert Chamberlain has said that he was proud of the “composure, poise and restraint” shown by his two officers. But, as the son of a retired cop, it is clear to me that the officers could have handled the situation better and more professionally.
Savitsky could have de-escalated the incident and ended it in half the time. That’s also part of good police work. When Turner pressed him as to why the car was being towed, the officer said that he didn’t “appreciate” her “demeanor” and claimed that she was “being very demanding.” Finally, he told Turner, “You have no right to know what’s going on here. I’m under no legal obligation to tell you.” When she made a snide comment about how he had “ruined” the students’ weekend, he responded: “I didn’t ruin anything. I’m just doing my job.”
The back-and-forth was inappropriate. This wasn’t a debate. Just end the standoff. Say goodbye, get in your squad car and drive away.
Of course, none of this lets Turner off the hook. She was 100 percent in the wrong, and she gave us all a glimpse of what the better and smarter “1 percent” thinks of the rest of us.
Let me say a word to the students who witnessed this spectacle up close and in real time.
Listen up, kids: Life’s most valuable lessons don’t come in the classroom. You should pursue a Ph.D. in people skills with an emphasis on how to treat people with respect. That will do you more good than degrees from fancy schools.
But what do I know? Despite a couple of degrees from a fancy school, I’m just the son of a lowly civil servant.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.