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An Ugly NYPD-Media Confrontation

November 30, 2009

With crime at historic lows and the police commissioner enjoying high public approval, one might think the NYPD would extend basic respect to police reporters — especially one from a newspaper that lauds the department and is loath to criticize it.

Think again.

In an ugly confrontation ten days ago, a veteran sergeant from the department’s office of Public Information cursed and threatened a police reporter from the Daily News who was merely doing his job.

The reporter’s offense: trying to learn details about a front-page subway killing — a stabbing inside a midtown subway car.

O.K., granted there is a natural antagonism between reporters and police officials.

And granted, some reporters can be rude and offensive.

Granted, too, that the Public Information Office, known as DCPI, has many polite and diligent officers who respond to media inquiries in a timely manner.

Still, a police officer threatening and cursing a civilian inside a police facility is unacceptable behavior.

Equally disturbing is that in this era of low crime, nobody — other than the ten or so reporters based at Police Plaza — seems to care.

The confrontation, between Sgt. Kevin Hayes and Daily News reporter Wil Cruz, occurred on Saturday, Nov. 21, just hours after a crazed straphanger fatally knifed a stranger aboard a midtown D train. Someone on the train had pulled the emergency cord, stopping the train between stations, trapping 30 terrified passengers in the car with the killer and his dying victim.

Reporters asked DCPI for details. Had someone on the train called 9ll? What time did the train get out of the tunnel? How long had passengers been trapped inside the car before the police arrived?

“We didn’t understand how the police responded,” a Police Plaza-based reporter explained. “We had some explanation from the Transit Authority, but we needed the police account.”

Hayes, DCPI’s supervising sergeant, said he would look into it. Throughout the day, the reporters returned to his office, but Hayes provided little information.

With deadlines approaching at the end of the day, reporters from the Times and the Post returned again, along with Cruz. Again, Hayes told them he would look into it.

Cruz — a police reporter for six years, who is regarded as persistent yet respectful — asked Hayes, at his desk at a far corner of the office, if he could reach out to the head of the office, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne.

“I told you I’ll look into it,” Hayes answered.

“We might have to reach out to Browne on our own,” Cruz said.

Then, according to witnesses, Hayes began shouting at Cruz, “I don’t care what you do. Get the f… out. I’ll kick your f… ing ass.”

“Excuse me?” said Cruz. “Did you say what I think you said?”

With that Hayes stood up and walked to the swinging doors that separate the police officers from the reporters. He and Cruz went at it nose to nose.

“You better get out,” Hayes shouted.

“I’m going to have to tell Commissioner Browne,” Cruz answered.

“Give him my regards,” shouted Hayes. “You might want to file a CCRB [Civilian Complaint Review Board] complaint. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last.”

Cruz then turned to Hayes’ supervisor, Lieu. Gene Whyte, seated nearby inside a glass-enclosed office. “Are you going to stand for this?” Cruz said.

Whyte, like the two reporters who had accompanied Cruz to DCPI, made no move to intervene.

“You’re going to allow him to talk to me like that?” Cruz pressed Whyte.

From inside his office, Whyte answered, “You better get out. You better just leave.”

Cruz then telephoned Browne, leaving a message about what had occurred. Browne did not return his call.

News bureau chief Rocco Parascandola later complained to Browne, who promised that such outbursts “would not occur again.”

 
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So what does it mean? What does it say about the police department and its dealings with the media — and, by extension, the public — if an outburst like this can happen?

More important, how frequently do incidents like this occur?

In 2005, when the department concluded Your Humble Servant needed an official escort to cover Police Plaza, Browne had enough confidence in Hayes to assign him as this reporter’s “minder.” He was both polite and restrained. He never raised his voice. His professionalism helped defuse a potentially tense situation.

Times have apparently changed since then at DCPI. A detective who earns $99,000 a year now goes out of his way to insult every reporter he comes in contact with at Police Plaza. A reporter for a small daily in Brooklyn with a largely Jewish readership is stonewalled when he attempts to obtain a press pass. He can’t even get an appointment to apply for one.

Such bully-boy tactics have occurred with enough frequency that last spring the bureau chiefs of the city’s daily newspapers, the Associated Press, and other media outlets complained to Browne.

Yet despite his promise to News Bureau Chief Parascandola that outbursts like Hayes’ will not be repeated, no one from the police department has apologized to Cruz. Nor has there been a reprimand of Hayes, at least not publicly.

Hayes declined to comment for this article, referring questions to Browne, who did not respond. Whyte also did not respond.

But no apology and no reprimand means no accountability. Which is how today’s police department operates under Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Despite Bloomberg’s campaign promise in 2001 to make the police department more transparent than under his predecessor Rudy Giuliani, today’s NYPD operates more in shadow than in the darkest days of the Giuliani administration.

Earlier this month, the Times quoted the police historian Thomas Reppetto, saying that Kelly was “the greatest commissioner in the department’s history.” That claim may or may not be true.

What is true is that Bloomberg has provided virtually no civilian oversight of the department. This had made Kelly the most powerful commissioner in its history.

Like Giuliani, Kelly holds reporters in low regard, as instruments to be manipulated. But unlike the former mayor, Kelly is especially conscious of his image and has gone out of his way to establish relationships with prominent newspersons who do not cover the police.

And he has something working for him that Giuliani did not. The city’s three daily newspapers — which have served as watchdogs of police abuses in the past — are failing.

Earlier this year, Kelly tried to evict them from their longtime offices on the second floor of Police Plaza, where they had been since 1973, when the building opened. He backed down after protests to Bloomberg, who apparently did not want to antagonize the newspapers during an election year. All three dailies subsequently endorsed his re-election bid for a third-term.

With Kelly now at the peak of his power, do reporters at Police Plaza have to worry about being threatened when they ask for information? Do they have to feel under siege when they visit DCPI?

Cruz, meanwhile, seems to be having trouble getting support from his own newspaper.

So far as is known, the News has not protested the incident. Managing editor Stuart Marques, who was apprised of the confrontation, did not return a phone call.

Other newspapers also appear uninterested.

A reporter from a major news outlet said he immediately notified his editor after the Hayes-Cruz confrontation.

And what was the editor’s reaction? “He just chuckled.”

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