Stealth Shuffle at the NYPD
January 16, 2006
It's not easy to dump a top chief in the New York City Police Department. The culture of The Job holds that if the boss doesn't want you, you resign. If you don't resign, the boss can figure out a way to get rid of you by making it as uncomfortable as possible.
But that's not always true. If you don't fall for that — if you don't swallow your gun, as they say — the boss has no recourse but to let you stay.
Now add a police commissioner who disdains his top brass and you begin to understand what's been afoot at One Police Plaza for the past couple of weeks.
First, it was rumored that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wanted to transfer Chief of Detectives George Brown and replace him with Brown's executive officer, Kelly's longtime friend, Assistant Chief Robert Giannelli.
It was also rumored that Kelly wanted to remove two others, Chief of Transportation Mike Scagnelli and Chief of Department Joe Esposito.
Let's begin with Brown. Just why Kelly wanted him out is unclear.
A lawyer like Kelly, Brown is considered a-political. Nonetheless, some in the department maintain his appointment in 2003 was abetted by city hall. More recently under him, the homicide clearance rate — the percentage of solved homicides that has long been the pride of the department — has fallen.
Yet Brown is a tough bird. A decade ago as the borough commander of Brooklyn South, Brown ran into trouble with former mayor Rudolph Giuliani because he granted no favors to Hasidic Jews. When the Hasidics protested his even-handedness to city hall, then police commissioner Howard Safir transferred Brown to headquarters. Brown sucked it up, kept his mouth shut and never considered retiring. Safir eventually promoted him to the three-star rank he currently holds.
.Fast-forward to earlier this month. When Kelly told Brown he wanted him to take a newly created position, Brown balked. According to Rocco Parascandola's report in last Wednesday's Newsday, which was confirmed by top and former top brass, Brown told Kelly he'd rather retire than accept what he considered a demotion to a less prestigious position.
People both inside and outside the NYPD rarely disagree with Ray Kelly. A former top police official says: "We go into his office feeling that if we are not prepared to say, 'Yes, sir, yes sir,' you better not go in. Safir was a pain in the ass, but even I had the ability to tell him when he was wrong. You can't do that with Kelly."
Said another former top police official: "For once, somebody stood up to him. I could kiss George for it."
And what was Kelly's reaction? Said that official: "Kelly is all about image. He doesn't want to be perceived as throwing anyone overboard."
Brown's transfer was cancelled.
Now let's turn to Scagnelli, who is a different story. Like Brown, he had tangled with Giuliani and Safir. Most notably, he found himself in hot water at a Yankee parade after a Giuliani bodyguard prevented him from escorting a group of widows and orphans into an area reserved for special guests.
After Safir's spokeswoman publicly accused him of the crime of "hobnobbing," Scagnelli spent the remaining Giuliani years holed up in a side office of Bill Allee, Brown's predecessor as Chief of Detectives. Like Brown, Scagnelli never considered retiring.
More recently under Kelly, as last month's transit strike loomed, Scagnelli refused to cancel a hunting trip, said to have been planned months in advance. He returned to headquarters hours before the strike began.
Last week, Kelly announced that two bureaus Scagnelli supervised would be taken from him. The most important, Transit. Kelly told the New York Times last week that transit officers would now report directly to Esposito to increase the department's "supervision of our counter-terrorism operation in the subways."
What having transit cops report directly to the Chief of Department would accomplish was not disclosed.
Finally, there is Esposito. He has served as Chief of Department – the NYPD's highest uniformed position – under both Kelly and his predecessor, Bernard Kerik, and he is regarded highly by both the top brass and the rank and file. With Kelly surrounded by civilian advisers and focused on terrorism, he is said to be the glue that holds the department together.
Yet Kelly disdains him, as he does his other top chiefs. One only has to attend a news conference to see this. Kelly takes center stage and does all the talking. The officials who flank him, Esposito included, are props. At one news conference Kelly introduced all those around him, but forgot Esposito.
A chief speculated that by asking Brown to take a newly created position, Kelly was signaling a loss of responsibility for Esposito. But with Brown's refusal to accept that, the rumors ended. Now, like Brown, Esposito isn't going anywhere.
Chris Dunn of the Civil Liberties Union had informed police department lawyers of my intention to attend a departmental trial on the 4th floor, which is open to the public. Security staffs at the metal detector outside the building and at the sign-in desk on the first floor of Police Plaza were alerted of my impending arrival.
It is not clear why the department fears me. Again, I want to assure all readers that I am neither a convicted felon [who by the way are permitted inside the building if cleared through the metal detector] nor a terrorist.
In an era of declining resources, I was given a minder, a full-time police escort, reminiscent of the era of Saddam Hussein or Joseph Stalin. My minder, a police officer Rodriquez, said he had instructions to accompany me to the fourth floor and remain with me. He was polite and helpful and even allowed me to make two calls from my cell phone. However, he would not permit me, as I left, to stop down on the second floor to visit my former police reporter colleagues. Instead, as per his instructions, Officer Rodriquez escorted me back down the elevator and out of the building.
Copyright © 2006 Leonard Levitt