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Kelly's issues with free press

April 30, 2004

When Michael Bloomberg ran for mayor, he promised a more "transparent" Police Department than had existed under Rudolph Giuliani.

Instead, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is out-Giuliani-ing Giuliani.

Here's what happened to two television reporters just doing their job and reporting events Kelly doesn't want the public to know about.

Let's begin with WABC-TV's Sarah Wallace.

Last week, Wallace came up with a tape made by Sgt. John Marchisotto that showed the inside of the Staten Island video surveillance unit. Marchisotto said he gave Wallace the tape to expose corruption inside the unit.

When she started asking questions, Kelly's right-hand man, Paul Browne, and his boys in the public information office - i.e. Deputy Chief Mike Collins - threatened to pull her press card.

"We didn't reveal any police secrets," said a source at the television station. "There was no issue of security. We violated no police procedure. The film showed only the inside of a room."

Next, Browne called Wallace's news director, Kenny Plotnick. Plotnick called the station's lawyer, Townsend Davis, who contacted the city's corporation counsel. The Police Department backed off its threat.

Yesterday at a City Council hearing, police officials admitted Wallace's reporting was correct: There were abuses within the surveillance unit.

Now let's turn to NY1 reporter Gary Anthony Ramsay.

He said that a month ago he entered the Internal Affairs office on Hudson Street, a supposedly secret hideaway that anyone can wander into by merely taking the elevator.

Ramsay said he was then taken to the department's public information office by Inspector Michael Coan. Ramsay, who contends he was merely observing, not filming, at Internal Affairs, said Coan accused him of misrepresenting himself as a lawyer.

"I've been a reporter 12 years," he said. "People know me all over the city. Why would I misrepresent myself?"

Coan confiscated Ramsay's press card. Not until this week was it returned.

NY1's station manager, Bernie Han, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

WABC's Plotnick said only that the incident was "an internal matter."

Wallace disagrees.

"This isn't about me or WABC-TV. It's about every reporter in New York trying to do his job. This is a First Amendment issue. If the suggestion is that your press card can be taken for normal news gathering we are all in trouble," she said.

Response from Collins, Coan and Browne: No comment.

Blue Blood. Edward Conlon of the 44th Precinct detective squad in the Bronx has written a book about what he says is "an ordinary police career." His book is anything but ordinary. If cops turn to writing books like his, all police reporters, Your Humble Servant included, will be out of business.

Conlon, a Harvard graduate who joined the department in 1995, says he is a cop first and a writer second. He comes from a cop family - father, uncle, great-grandfather - and he has turned patrolling the Morris Houses in Claremont Village into poetry.

Just check this out: "If the NYPD is less and less a fraternity, it will remain a kind of ethnicity because ethnicity is defined by language. An arrest is a collar but also a pinch; a perp can be a skell or a mope, depending on whether he's a lowlife or a thug. A DOA is someone who's gone EOT, end of tour. One number, two under, ten under, is an accounting of collars but in Transit, a 'man under' is not under arrest but under a train. After a stabbing or a traffic accident, you'd hear over the air, 'Is he likely?' It was short for 'likely to die,' and require the cop to make a crude wager of Likely or Not to summon Accident Investigations or a detective from the Squad to the scene."

When parts of Conlon's book were excerpted in the New Yorker, another department author - former commissioner Bernard Kerik, a recent graduate of Empire State College - got the idea Conlon should join his office, perhaps as a speech writer. The idea was dropped after it was divined that everyone would think Conlon wrote Kerik's book.

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© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.