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Not a Reporter Was Stirring ...

December 25, 2006

On the night before Christmas, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly decided to stroll down Fifth Avenue.

William Bratton, Kelly’s predecessor a decade before, had inaugurated the Christmas Eve stroll when he and his sidekick Jack Maple lit out from the Plaza to see how many New Yorkers recognized them “for having single-handedly created the greatest crime drop in the city’s history,” as Bratton modestly put it.

Bratton’s successor, Howard Safir, attempted the stroll in 1996, but quit after a block because nobody recognized him.

In 2001, Kelly’s predecessor, Bernie Kerik, passed up the stroll because he was too preoccupied with 9/11 — i.e., sneaking his girlfriends into the Ground Zero apartment he had been loaned so he could recover from his supposedly round-the-clock work days.

This year Kelly decided to take the stroll so he could ponder his situation following the fatal police shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man. Accompanying him was Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne, whom Kelly suggested walk a few paces behind him so that Kelly could ponder without being disturbed.

After walking two blocks from the Plaza to 57th Street, Kelly concluded the following: So long as he’d kept the city focused on terrorism, his popularity had soared. But after the 50-bullet barrage that killed Bell and wounded his two friends, some people were calling for Kelly’s resignation.

Even the mayor — who had granted Kelly five years of unlimited power with virtually no oversight or accountability — had called the shooting “excessive” and “unacceptable.”

“Paul,” Kelly shouted to Browne, who had stopped outside Tiffany’s on 58th Street and was lecturing a family from Indiana on why Kelly was the greatest police commissioner the city ever had.

“Yes, commissioner,” shouted Brown, racing half a block to Kelly’s side. “I was just telling some people that no one but you could have kept New York City safe from terrorists.”

“O.K., Paul,” Kelly answered. Although Browne had served Kelly since 1992 or thereabouts when Kelly was appointed police commissioner under David Dinkins, Browne’s prattling sometimes became tiresome.

“And let me add, commissioner, that no one but you could have made New York the nation’s safest largest city.”

“That’s enough, Paul. I’ve pondered my situation and discovered the problem. First, because of the Bell shooting, reporters no longer take everything I say at face value. Second, they are asking questions I don’t want to answer.”

Browne wasn’t sure what Kelly was driving at. Although he venerated his boss, he was aware Kelly was more accepting of credit than of blame.

“For example, Paul, a reporter recently asked me about a supervisory breakdown in the undercover team the night of Bell’s shooting. He asked why no sergeant from the team had been present.”

“Commissioner,” said Browne, “that is not my fault. How can I prevent …”

“Well, whose fault was it then, Paul? Your job is to prevent reporters from asking those questions. Once they start, there will be no end to it. Next, they’ll be questioning my anti-terrorism strategies. Then where will we be?”

“Commissioner, just let me say …”

Kelly held up his hand. “Then, there are the recent crime figures. Homicides up nearly 10 per cent for the the year. Juvenile arrests at their highest levels in five years. Not to mention the spike in the number of shootings, which I won’t even acknowledge.”

“But commissioner, I was still able to convince The Times we were the safest large city in America.”

“But then you made up that nonsense about eight cities, including L.A., Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami, having more fatal police shootings this year than New York.”

“I might have been overzealous, Commissioner.”

“Timoney contacted the Daily News from Miami. He said Miami had no fatal police shootings this year. Not one. How does this make you look, Paul? More important, how does it make me look?”

They were strolling past the University Club on 54th Street. Kelly was jabbing his finger at Browne, who looked as though he were about to cry.

“Do you know what I’ve concluded your problem is, Paul?” Kelly continued. “I don’t think you’re tough enough. I don’t think reporters fear you anymore.”

Browne’s jaw dropped. How could the commissioner say this about him? For the past five years he had prided himself on retaliating against reporters who wrote critical stories of Kelly, never hesitating, as Kelly put it, to “send them a message.”

“Commissioner, I don’t think that’s quite fair. I’ve threatened any number of reporters. I’ve instructed my staff not to acknowledge certain others or even return their phone calls. And I’ve refused to issue the worst reporter of them all [Here, Browne took a deep breath, having sworn never again to utter the name of Your Humble Servant] a building pass for One Police Plaza, making him wait in line with the hoi polloi.

“Remember, commissioner, how in 2003 you drove out to Newsday, where he worked then, to complain to his editors? Remember how last year I barred him from Police Plaza as a ‘security threat’? Remember how I had his mug shot placed on the front desk in the lobby together with those who had threatened your life? It’s just not fair to say that I’m not tough enough.”

“But he’s still out there, Paul!” Kelly shouted at him. “The lawyers said we had no right to bar him from the building. Now he writes on-line and he’s worse than ever.”

Browne opened his mouth but his voice failed. He wondered whether he had developed a sudden laryngitis.

“Now listen closely, Paul, I’m going to explain how I want things done. Do you remember that obnoxious story he had two weeks ago about how I’d failed to appoint any black chiefs to meaningful positions? How in five years I failed to appoint even one black borough commander?

“After that, politicians started pushing for a black borough commander. Councilwoman Letitia James announced a news conference at City Hall. So what did I do? I did an end run around her. Before the news conference, I announced the appointment of Chief Gerald Nelson, a black borough commander of Brooklyn North. Now that’s the way to do p.r.”

Brilliant, Browne found himself thinking. The boss is absolutely brilliant.

“Or take the Port Authority,” Kelly continued. “The Times gets hold of a security analysis saying structural problems in the P.A.’s PATH train tubes beneath the Hudson River make them vulnerable to a bomb. Of course, the Port Authority doesn’t show me the report. Why should they? I refused to cooperate with them years ago. I didn’t even invite them to my recent anti-terrorism conference on how terrorists might transport a bomb into the city by commuter train. Furthermore, I have no jurisdiction in their tunnels.”

“But The Times ignores all that. Instead I go public and ask for the report and they make me sound like a hero. That, Paul, is good p.r.”

By now Kelly and Browne had reached St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Every Christmas Eve, Kelly attended midnight mass there. Every Christmas Eve — even when he was out of office — Kelly contacted the archdiocese for a special ticket allowing him to sit in the first row.

My God, thought Browne, even the Cardinal is in awe of him.

“I’m leaving you now, Paul,” Kelly said, turning to go inside St. Pat’s. “I trust my situation has resolved itself.”

Browne melted back into the crowds along Fifth Avenue . He watched Kelly walk into the church, certain he himself was a sinner and Kelly a saint.
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Copyright © 2006 Leonard Levitt