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The Times Catches On

November 28, 2011

The national media finally recognizes there is a problem with the lack of oversight over the NYPD. Read or listen to the National Public Radio “Morning Edition” story of Dec. 1.

It has taken ten years, but the New York Times has figured out that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is no friend of the media.

After police arrested and roughed up reporters covering the Zuccotti Park evacuation two weeks ago, the Times’s Vice President and Assistant General Counsel George Freeman blasted the department.

Writing to NYPD spokesman Paul Browne on Nov. 21, Freeman said that the NYPD’s actions during the recent Occupy Wall Street [OWS] demonstrations “have been more hostile to the press than any other event in recent memory.”

Twelve media outlets, including three local televisions stations, the city’s two daily tabloids, the Associated Press and Reuters, also signed the letter, which accused police officers of acting like thugs.

Freeman described an incident in which officers physically abused a female photographer, trying to do her job and follow police orders. She had been wearing “clearly visible DCPI-issued press credentials,” Freeman wrote, while photographing OWS protestors near the corner of Pine and William Streets about 9 a.m. on Nov. 17.

She moved towards the sidewalk as directed by a police officer, only to be grabbed by another officer who threw her to the ground so that her head hit the pavement.

Freeman described another officer who allegedly injured, then mocked a female reporter. Like the photographer, she was displaying DCPI-issued press credentials.

She had been standing with a group of photographers at a barricade on Cedar Street between Broadway and Trinity Place around midnight Nov. 17 when officers started pushing the photographers back. An officer shoved her. She fell backwards, landing on her elbow, and yelled in pain.

“The reporter said the officer then proceeded to pick her up by the collar while yelling, ‘Stop pretending,’” Freeman wrote.

The police didn’t only pick on women.

Freeman described how officers allegedly attacked a male photographer who had been on a sidewalk near the west end of Zuccotti Park on evacuation day, trying to take a picture of a blood-soaked demonstrator.

“As he raised his camera to take a picture,” Freeman wrote, “two other police officers came running toward him, grabbed a metal barrier and forcefully lunged at him, striking the photographer in the chest, knees and shin. As they did, they screamed he was not permitted to be taking pictures on the sidewalk — the most traditionally recognized public forum aside from a park.”

Freeman also had some words for Browne.

After an August meeting in which Browne established new procedures to review press complaints Freeman wrote, “Our first attempt to follow that procedure … was met with silence. Despite three follow-up letters there has been no action on your part — not even the courtesy of a reply.”

Such police disdain towards the media apparently has its genesis at City Hall. Mayor Michael Bloomberg may own a media conglomerate but he has been silent about the police department’s abusive treatment of reporters and photographers during the OWS evictions, as well as the arrests of reporters from established outlets like the Associated Press and the Daily News.

Bloomberg’s spokesman Stu Loeser inanely tried to play down the arrests. “You can imagine my surprise when we found that only five of the 26 arrested reporters actually have valid NYPD-issued press credentials,” he said.

Earth to Stu: It is more difficult to obtain press credentials today under Bloomberg than at any time in living memory.

While the Times has criticized Kelly in the past, in particular over his stop-and-frisk policies, Freeman’s sharp letter may be a watershed moment in the Times’s perception of Kelly.

And the Times isn’t the only prominent member of the media which is now seeing Kelly with clearer eyes.

Take Gabe Pressman, the city’s pre-eminent television reporter of the past five decades and the former president of the New York Press Club. For years he blunted criticism of Kelly by calling him “my friend.”

On his website, following the OWS evacuation, Pressman pronounced himself “outraged” by the police action towards the media.

In response to all this heat, Kelly may be reconsidering his iron-fist approach to the media. Last week, he issued an internal message, ordering officers not to interfere unreasonably with journalists’ access and warning that those officers who unfairly interfere with the press will face disciplinary action.

Until recently, the media in this town has been complicit in failing to report police abuse. When a sergeant in Browne’s Public Information Office cursed and threatened Daily News police reporter Wil Cruz, the News said, and did, nothing.

Ever since the World Trade Center attacks, the media has fallen into a post 9/11 swoon when it comes to critical coverage of Kelly and the NYPD.

This stems from still jittery nerves regarding terrorism and from Kelly’s ability to turn on the charm when it suits him.

But write or say something critical of Kelly and the charm vanishes.

Leonard Levitt's new book, NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force, will be out in stores July 21. Preorder it today by clicking on the book at right.

Back in March 2003, this reporter, then hanging his hat at Newsday, questioned the sudden and unexplained departure of former Marine General and Long Island native Francis X. Libutti, the department’s first head of its Counter-Terrorism Bureau.

Kelly had hailed his hiring in early 2002 as “returning home.”

Instead, Libutti left after 14 months to take an ill-defined position with the Department of Homeland Security, with no credible explanation for his departure from Kelly or anyone else in the NYPD.

The column, which appeared on March 24, was headlined: “A short-lived homecoming.”

Kelly then wrote a letter to Newsday published two days later, in which he called Your Humble Servant “profoundly ignorant; at worse, mendaciously vindictive.”

He then turned up at Newsday’s headquarters in Melville, L.I. to complain personally to my editors.

When I left Newsday to continue this column online, police officers barred me from Police Plaza.

After the Civil Liberties Union intervened, I was permitted inside but given a police shadow, a sergeant from Browne’s office, who escorted me about the building.

The NYPD then placed my picture at the security desk in Police Plaza’s lobby. Across my face, they wrote the words: “Security Threat.”

I was then denied a press card. With a threatened law suit by the Civil Liberties Union, I was finally able to obtain one.

Last year, it expired. I am attempting to renew it. Good luck with that.

The Rashomon of explanations for the NYPD’s Intelligence Division’s arrest of “lone wolf” terrorism suspect Jose Pimentel grows more confusing, further exposing the rift between the NYPD and the FBI.

Pimentel, a Dominican immigrant whom the NYPD says was an Al Qaeda adherent preparing to make bombs in his mother’s Washington Heights apartment, has been described as unemployed, broke and beset with mental problems. The FBI is said to have refused the case, saying it did not trust the NYPD’s informant.

Pimentel is the fourth “lone wolf” terrorist arrested by the NYPD without the assistance of the FBI. Each arrest has been marked by front-page headlines and unconventional NYPD actions.

The first, Matin Siraj, a Pakistani immigrant, was convicted of plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention. The NYPD did not alert the FBI of its investigation until shortly before Siraj’s indictment.

At his trial, Siraj appeared to be slow-witted. Evidence at the trial revealed that the police paid $100,000 to the informant who provided the evidence against him.

In the case of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh, who were indicted this spring by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance for allegedly plotting to blow up a synagogue, the FBI was concerned about the credibility of the NYPD’s undercover who had developed the evidence against the two suspects, law enforcement sources said.

The NYPD also wouldn’t let the FBI interview the undercover, the sources said.

Here now are three different views of the Pimentel case.

A top city prosecutor: “I believe cases like this have to be done. None of these guys are sane. But the fact that he [Pimentel] is not a genius doesn’t mean you ignore him. Where I draw the line is that I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of this. Vance, Kelly and Bloomberg held a joint news conference in the Blue Room on a Sunday night. Bloomberg looked like he’d just flown in from Bermuda. Doing it this way makes everyone crazy. In fact, the arrest of this guy merits one paragraph in a metropolitan brief.”

A federal law enforcement official: “It sounds like he [Pimentel] has limited mental capacity. The police informant supplied him with bomb-making equipment and also supplied him with weed, which the two were smoking together. The complaint said Pimentel had ‘numerous conversations’ with the confidential informant, many of which were not recorded. If not, why not? Did they include only the inculpatory stuff but not the exculpatory stuff? What is the value of taped conversations when he [Pimentel] was high? And if this case was so important why did Bloomberg leave for the weekend?”

The NYPD's position, as described on her website by the department's unofficial voice on fighting terrorism, Judith Miller, who has the ear, if not the eye, of Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen:

“The NYPD kept the FBI fully informed of [Pimentel’s] growing radicalization, David Cohen... told me. Another official says that an agent from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force had been part of an NYPD-led ‘working group’ that tracked the Pimentel inquiry and circulated bulletins every few days about what they consider his increasingly violent threats. That official told me the NYPD continued handling the investigation after the FBI tried to insert its own operative into the mix [who was supposed to interact with Mr. Pimentel in cyberspace]. After that effort failed, the FBI had little choice but to defer to the NYPD, the official told me.

“‘They tried to work their own source in and failed,’ he said.”

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Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt