March 23, 2009
This column recently received the following e-mail: “I am the editor of a local newspaper in Brooklyn.Here is my problem. Many news topics that I write about require, or rely completely on, information from the NYPD. Police precincts and other units refer inquiries of any kind to DCPI. I call DCPI about two times a week. … My calls are news-related and to-the-point. They are not frivolous.
“DCPI personnel often seem irritated to get the call. The information is skeletal and can be inaccurate. Sometimes they do not have [or choose not to release] anything, even the day after an event. DCPI sometimes asks that an inquiry be e-mailed but they do not respond. Occasionally, they will begin the call by asking if I am a credentialed member of the press. I do not have a press card. When they hear this, the conversation seems to go downhill, as if I have less a right to ask for public information.
“We do not have high circulation numbers or inside contacts at the NYPD. I work from my desk and generally do not cover things ‘in the field.’ I would like to do a good job and provide coverage for our readers. I would also like to deal in a positive way with police. Mr. Levitt, I would like to know what advice someone of your experience can give me.”
Dear Editor: You are not alone. DCPI stonewalls New York City’s entire press corps — even reporters based at Police Plaza, some of whom have been there for decades.
Police departments everywhere distrust the media — sometimes with cause — and often resist revealing information. When that happens, the loser is the public.
Under former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the NYPD became more closed than at any time in its modern history. The scarcity of public information and antagonism towards the press became most pronounced during the four years of Police Commissioner Howard Safir. At a Police Foundation dinner, he introduced two New York Times reporters to a guest, calling them “slime.”
Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s 2001 election promise of a more “transparent” police department, the NYPD under Commissioner Ray Kelly has become more secretive than even during Giuliani’s years.
Perhaps symbolically, the door to the 13th floor corridor leading to DCPI has been locked. Only those with a building pass have access.
Kelly no longer provides his public schedule. [Even President Obama and FBI Director Robert Mueller provide theirs.] Kelly has justified such secrecy by citing threats from “terrorism.”
But the lack of disclosure goes deeper. Recently, the New York Post’s police bureau chief Murray Weiss wrote that, while investigating 100 officers suspected of mob ties, the newspaper “requested NYPD records normally available for inspection” at DCPI. NYPD officials, Weiss wrote, refused to provide them.
Here now are some suggestions for you.
First, come down to Police Plaza and introduce yourself to the police officers at DCPI so that you will become more than a voice on the phone. Ask to speak to a ranking officer, perhaps the knowledgeable Lieu. Eugene Whyte.
Also try to arrange an appointment with DCPI’s Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne. While Browne can be overbearing, he is very capable and probably closer to Kelly than anyone in the police department. If you can get him to listen, he might agree that it serves no one’s interests when DCPI stonewalls you.
Second, you are entitled to a press card. Recent threats of lawsuits by attorney Norman Siegel on behalf of reporter Raphael Martinez and by the NY Civil Liberties Union on my behalf have forced the department to loosen restrictive policies that denied credentials to reporters who wrote critically of Kelly and the department. If Your Humble Servant was recently able to obtain a press card after it was arbitrarily revoked two years ago, so can you.
Third, if the department continues to deny you a press card, you should have your publisher contact your local city councilman to arrange a meeting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But be forewarned. Although Bloomberg owns a media company, he is no friend of reporters, or of the first Amendment.
The proof: He has turned a blind eye to the department’s media abuses.
On the other hand, he respects the opinion of voters, especially with his third, and supposedly final, election to City Hall looming.
Just how dysfunctional has DCPI become? Well, when asked for a response to your letter, the question was kicked all the way up to Inspector Ed Mullin, the office’s commanding officer. The answer: no comment.
Truth to tell, I was flattered. Despite the Post’s Cro-Magnon editorials, its Sunday book section is sharp and focused, and something of a small gem.
The book I was assigned was “Bad Cop” — subtitle, “New York’s least likely police officer tells all.” The author, Paul Bacon, may have been a washout as a cop but he sure can write. In grotesque and hilarious detail, he depicts the gritty, frightening and thankless world of a New York City police officer.
The editor and I agreed on a price. On Feb. 17th I sent in my review.
Imagine my surprise when I opened my Post the following Sunday, February 22nd. Instead of my review, my words appeared in a news story under the headline, “Tales from NYPD’s own Keystone Kop,” and the byline “Cynthia R. Fagan,” a Post reporter.
Was I dreaming? Had I awoken too early and imagined this? Reader, you decide. Here are the opening paragraphs of the review I wrote:
“When we meet Paul Bacon — Police Officer Paul Bacon, that is — he is wrestling on the floor of an Old Navy store in Harlem with a 250-pound, coked-up shoplifter, whose welfare card identifies him — if you can believe it — as “Geraldine Harris.”
“In the midst of their struggle, Bacon’s partner, Police Officer Clarabel Suarez — yes, Clarabel — takes out her pepper spray and mistakenly maces Bacon in the face.”
Here are the opening paragraphs of Cynthia R. Fagan’s news story:
“When we meet Officer Paul Bacon, he’s wrestling with on the floor of an Old Navy in Harlem with a coked-up, 250-pound shoplifter whose welfare card identifies him — to the cop’s disbelief — as “Geraldine Harris.”
In the midst of their struggle, his partner, Officer Clarabel Suarez, reaches for her pepper spray ….”
Fagan’s news story was about the size of my review, which I ended this way:
“The hapless Bacon finally throws in his police towel when, after completing a day tour at the Two-Eight, he is assigned to a midnight counter-terrorism security detail at Police Plaza. A friendly cop gives him the keys to his nearby patrol car so that Bacon can “coop,” or sleep, for a couple of hours. But Bacon somehow locks himself inside the car and has to call 911 for assistance.
“As Clarabel drives him home his last night on the job, he announces he wants to marry her. Her response reflects Bacon’s three misspent years in the NYPD.
“’That’s sweet,’ she replied, patting my hands, ‘but the only reason I’d marry you back is for the life insurance, ’cuz you’re not long for this world.’”
Here is the ending of Cynthia R. Fagan’s news story.
“Ultimately, though, Bacon realizes that the NYPD isn’t right for him. Assigned to a midnight counter terrorism security detail at Police Plaza, he’s given the keys to a nearby patrol car to nap. But Bacon somehow locks himself inside the car and has to call 911 for assistance.
“As Suarez drives him home on is last night on the job, he announces he wants to marry her.
“‘That’s sweet,” she replied, patting my hands, ‘but the only reason I’d marry you is for the life insurance, ’cuz you’re not long for this world.’”
[To be continued]