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Kelly vs. the FBI: Round 17,000

March 7, 2011

Is Police Commissioner Ray Kelly really going to close the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force, as he has threatened?

He appears to be hesitating.

Pulling the NYPD’s six detectives from the task force may seem minor.

But beneath the surface, the matter is fraught with significance.

In high-level law enforcement — where obfuscating, and even dissembling, are a way of doing business — symbols can be more important than numbers and statistics.

And the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force, which is comprised of FBI agents and NYPD detectives, is a symbol.

Until the task force was formed in 1979, both the FBI and NYPD — agencies long at odds — had jurisdiction over all bank robberies.

Until then, the FBI patronized local police agencies, including the corruption-prone NYPD, which the Bureau considered an untrustworthy partner. Feuds and rivalries complicated their bank robbery investigations.

In the spirit of law enforcement cooperation, the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force was created to handle armed bank robberies. The NYPD’s Major Case Squad took over the less serious “note jobs.”

The task force proved so successful that it became a symbol of cooperation between the FBI and the NYPD.

It became the model for the Joint Terrorist Task Force, formed a year later, which is also comprised of NYPD detectives and FBI agents. That, in turn, became the model for joint FBI and police terrorist task forces across the country.

Such local and federal cooperation has a special resonance in New York City, which is the nation’s primary terrorist target.

You might think that, under these circumstances, it would be a good idea for the NYPD to make nice with the FBI. Instead, since becoming police commissioner in 2002, Commissioner Kelly has gone out of his way to disparage the Bureau.

He has repeatedly criticized the FBI for failing to prevent the World Trade Center attacks and, a decade later, continues to go his own way.

With this stance, he has cultivated an image as the nation’s premier terrorism fighter.

Last month, a National Geographic television special, “Counter-Terror NYC,” showcased NYPD sniper teams carrying assault weapons at high-profile events to guard against terrorists and showed a NYPD high-tech patrol boat with a radiation detector to spot a dirty bomb.

Last week, a group called the National Committee on American Foreign Policy presented Kelly with an award for creating the country’s first counter-terrorism bureau for a municipal police department.

Neither National Geographic nor the Foreign Policy Committee addressed the fact that Kelly goes out of his way to antagonize the FBI and other government agencies fighting terrorism and that his actions often contradict sensible policy.

His much-heralded stationing of NYPD detectives overseas was a direct slap at the Bureau, which has “legates,” or legal attachés, in many of the same overseas countries.

Other actions calculated to upset the FBI:

bulletSending NYPD detectives on out-of-state, anti-terrorism forays without alerting the Bureau, which has national jurisdiction in such matters.

bulletDispatching NYPD detectives across the country, supposedly for “national security,” to spy on protestors planning to demonstrates at the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden — also without informing the Bureau.

Despite these slights, FBI leaders seem to have bent over backwards so as not to antagonize Kelly.

Mark Mershon, who headed the FBI’s New York office from 2005-2008, explained shortly after arriving in the city that his first priority was to get along with Kelly.

In an unprecedented Bureau move, Mershon’s successor, Joe Demarest, was hired from retirement, at least in part because of his positive relationship with Kelly.

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You can have all the high-tech gadgetry in the world. You can station detectives from the North Pole to Antarctica. But if you refuse to cooperate with the agencies helping you and insist on going it alone to fight terrorism, what’s the point of it all?

Once again, we return to the most dangerous example of law enforcement dysfunction: how Kelly and the NYPD nearly torpedoed the FBI’s case against Najibullah Zazi, the Denver airport driver who in 2009 planned to detonate bombs in the city’s subways — the most serious terrorism threat against New Yorkers since 9ll.

While the FBI, with NYPD detectives from the Joint Terrorist Task Force, tracked Zazi as he drove to New York, Kelly and Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence David Cohen had another detective from Cohen’s Intelligence Division reach out to one of the department’s own informants about Zazi.

That informant tipped off Zazi who cut short his trip to New York and returned to Denver.

The FBI — which, thankfully, had wiretaps placed on the phones of Zazi’s father, whom the informant warned about the NYPD’s visit — was forced to scramble and arrest Zazi prematurely before the full dimensions of his plot were discovered.

Now here’s the issue: Did the NYPD commit an honest mistake in contacting its own informant?

It doesn’t appear so. The tip-off is that neither Kelly nor Cohen informed the Bureau before or after contacting him.

One can only conclude that Kelly, once again, sought to appear as the nation’s premier terrorism fighter. In so doing, he inadvertently sabotaged the FBI’s investigation.

Yet to this day, there has been no public accounting.

FBI Director Robert Mueller has never publicly raised questions about Kelly’s tactics in the Zazi case.

Even President Obama got in on the act. Three months after the incident, he called Kelly at Police Plaza to congratulate him and the NYPD for its work on the Zazi case.

As we said, high-level law enforcement’s modus operandi is often to obfuscate and dissemble. The loser, of course, is the citizenry.

Now, against the background of this friction with the FBI, Kelly’s threat to end the Bank Robbery Task Force unfolds as yet another slap at the Bureau.

Kelly has justified pulling the detectives by citing statistics. He has said that the number of armed bank robbery cases last year —26 — was the lowest in the unit’s history [although the number has spiked this year] and says that with 6,000 fewer officers than a decade ago, the detectives can be better used elsewhere.

Others add that the department’s head count has fallen by 6,000 in the past decade, with another 1,000 officers assigned to fighting terrorism.

Kelly originally set Feb. 28 as the date to remove the detectives. That date passed a week ago.

Last Friday afternoon, he met with the FBI’s New York head, Janet Fedarcyk. The meeting was held at Police Plaza, not at the FBI’s offices at 26 Federal Plaza, where Kelly has not been seen in years.

Numerically, statistically, Kelly’s reasons for pulling the detectives may seem valid.

But, perhaps recognizing that symbolism can trump numbers and statistics, he has yet to pull the trigger.

. A reader points out that Captain Ronald Haas — who’s known for torturing his subordinates — was not “bounced” as commanding officer of the Manhattan’s D.A. squad, as this column reported last week. Rather, Haas was transferred to Manhattan Detectives. In the reader’s words, it was “a bump, not a dump.”

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Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt