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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Haas

March 29, 2010

Is NYPD Captain Ronald Haas an asset or a liability to the Manhattan District Attorney’s NYPD detective squad? That’s a question the newly elected District Attorney Cyrus Vance may soon be asking.

Is the 50-year-old Haas, a 28-year police department veteran, the tough and savvy squad commander who prides himself on his loyalty to the NYPD, as he and some of his superiors feel?

Or is he the coarse and rigid boss, particularly hard on blacks and women, who subordinates say leaves bodies and bitterness in his wake?

Haas has been the D.A.’s NYPD detective squad commander of some 20 detectives for about a year, and people are wondering which portrait better fits him.

In a telephone interview, he laughed off the charges of being hard on women and blacks, and said of his approach to command: “The police department is a para-military organization. I do my job and I follow orders. My bosses know more than I do and I know more than the guys under me. In the end, I have to look myself in the mirror and do what I think is right.”

In the past, Haas has been a lightning rod for controversy. Yet, with his intelligence, cunning and charm, he has always seemed to land on his feet.

Prior to 9/11, he worked as a lieutenant in the Intelligence Division, heading the Special Services Unit [SSU], perhaps the department’s most secret undercover unit.

Subordinates in the unit described him as “brutal” and insensitive to the tensions that the undercovers live with on a daily basis, and accused him of rifling through confidential personnel records to bully or embarrass them.

[As this article was prepared, Haas researched which college this reporter had attended and quizzed me about it — “to make sure you are who you are,” he said.]

After 9/11, when former CIA operative David Cohen took over the Intelligence Division, Haas seemed unable to adjust to Cohen’s civilian leadership and his focus on fighting terrorism.

As an Intelligence official put it, “Arrogance met arrogance.”

Result: Haas was kicked out of the Intelligence Division.

Said a former top Intelligence Division official, “He became persona non grata.”

Said another: “He was moved out. He was one of many. Either they got on board or, if they chose not to, they got out.”

Haas was subsequently promoted to captain, headed a gang unit, then retired and took a job in the private sector, but returned to the NYPD after a year. “I love this job,” he explained. “This is where I belong.”

He also apparently had troubles at home. In March 2007, the NYPD placed him on modified assignment after officers responded to a domestic incident at his home that St. Patrick’s Day.

Police sources said that the two officers who answered the call were women, and that Haas allegedly cursed at them.

Haas called the incident “a private matter” and declined to offer details. He denied cursing the female officers. “Not true,” he said.

Following the resignation of former Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau’s chief assistant Dan Castleman in early 2009, his successor, Pat Dugan, appointed Haas head of the DA’s NYPD detective squad, sources said. Dugan did not return an email message.

Whether Haas possesses the political skills for the job remains uncertain.

“The commanding officer of the DA’s detective squad performs a delicate balancing act,” says a former squad commander. “In effect, he serves two masters: the D.A. and his NYPD bosses—the Chief of Detectives and the Police Commissioner. “If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be there. “

The balancing act goes something like this, he explained. “You are doing a corruption case that involves a police officer. Do you inform the Chief of Detectives or Internal Affairs when the ADA you are working with says the investigation will be ruined if you talk to anyone else?

“They would trust us with cases. But in keeping everyone in the loop in the police department, you can let the cat out of the bag. Sometimes you would make a phone call and leave no paper trail. Paper can ruin certain investigations.”

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An anonymous letter, apparently written by a disgruntled squad member, is circulating, saying that Haas’s “I don’t work for the District Attorneys’ Office, I work for the NYPD” mentality is creating problems for the squad.

“It is now the intention of Captain Haas to have the DD5 system installed here within this office,” the letter writer continued, referring to the NYPD’s practice of documenting the investigative steps that detectives take.

The anonymous letter writer said this would give “One Police Plaza unprecedented access to all sensitive cases brought to this squad. In past experiences, such leaks usually resulted in unwanted media coverage, subsequently compromising the ongoing investigation. …”

Haas defends his approach as improved case management. “In life, you make changes in a unit. Any responsible person would agree with me.”

And he denied that he is more loyal to the NYPD than to the DA. Says Haas: “I do understand the needs and wants both of the NYPD and of the DA’s office.”

. The 23 per cent spike in murders may or may not have folks around the city worried as the Daily News claimed Friday, but it does seem to be worrying Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, Paul Browne.

Although the increase from 79 to 97 murders for the first 11 weeks of the year [as well a 16 per cent rise in shooting incidents] may be nothing more than a statistical blip, Browne is already out there with tortured explanations and justifications.

First, there’s the old, “The NYPD is fighting its own success,” as Browne put it. That’s boilerplate whenever a crime spike follows a low felony year like 2009, when homicides fell to 466, the fewest since 1960 when there were 390.

Then there are the percentages comparisons.

Browne told the News that this year’s murder rate so far was still 14 per cent lower than in 2008 and 39 per cent less than in 2001.

That line, too, has been a constant over the past 15 years whenever crime rises, as it invariably does. Former Police Commissioner Howard Safir used it in 1999 when 569 homicides were reported through Oct. 31, a nine per cent increase from the previous year, and, as the Times pointed out at the time, the first uptick in homicides since 1991 when New York hit its famous number of 2,245.

Safir pointed out to the Times that murder was still down 65 per cent from six years before.

Brown, though — who is known to readers of this column as “Mr. Truth” — has something going for him that Safir’s spokesperson, and in fact most police flacks, lacked — imagination.

According to the News, Browne “partially attributed the increase in murders to a rise in arson deaths, from zero to six, and in homicides among family members, from 12 to 14.”

Chalk one up for the Wall Street Journal and its New York City section as it seeks to compete with the Times. They’ve just hired the crack police reporter, Sean Gardiner.

Formerly of Newsday and more recently the Village Voice, Gardiner is perhaps best known journalistically for his profiling ten men who, between them, were sentenced to 150 years in state prisons for murders they didn’t commit.

Sources at Police Plaza suggested that the administration felt the conservative Journal would be friendly to the police and that Deputy Commissioner Browne was thrilled to have a Journal reporter working inside Police Plaza as a foil to the more liberal Times.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

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