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Eight Years Too Late

January 23, 2012

We would like to apologize for past warnings not to believe more than 50 per cent of anything that emanates from the mouth of police spokesman Paul Browne. We were far too generous.

The credibility, or lack thereof, concerning Mr. Truth — as he is known to readers of this column — was on blatant display over the Daily News’s front page story on Saturday.

The story was about Commissioner Ray Kelly’s extraordinary “policing 101 refresher” memo, as the Daily News termed it, that Browne called “routine.”

This memo was anything but routine. It specifically forbade officers from ignoring crime victims, as critics have charged the NYPD has done since at least 2004.

It ordered cops to stop using tricks to avoid taking crime reports, such as referring victims to the precinct where the crime occurred, or refusing to write up a complaint when the victim can’t identify the suspect, can’t provide a receipt for stolen items, refuses to view photographs, or doesn’t want to prosecute an offender.

Asked by the News’s police bureau chief Rocco Parascandola what had prompted Kelly’s memo, Browne further defied common sense, saying it was unrelated to the escalating concerns throughout the city about the reliability of the NYPD’s crime reporting.

“We use operations to periodically remind personnel of proper procedures,” Browne told the paper. He did not return an email or phone call from this reporter, seeking a truer explanation.

About the only people who might believe his nonsense are the Great Minds of the editorial boards of the Daily News and the New York Post.

We shudder to predict how their subsequent editorials will describe Kelly’s memo: proof, no doubt, that he is dedicated to continued honesty in the counting of crimes.

On the contrary, Kelly’s memo underscores the giant hole in the cornerstone of supposed NYPD successes in lowering crime over the past decade since Kelly returned as commissioner in 2001.

It indicates that for the past eight years Kelly has refused to tackle a widespread, systemic problem, one that some say he himself encouraged by promoting only commanders who produced low crime statistics.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has chosen to ignore the problem so that, year after year, he could tout New York City as “the safest big city in America,” a claim that no law enforcement official this reporter has ever spoken to takes seriously.

“This memo should have been written eight years ago when these concerns were first made public,” said a former top police official. “For ten years, Commissioner Kelly has been basking in the glories of reduced crime when those numbers were being questioned. This is what happens when you tell people everything is fine because the police commissioner won’t accept negative news.”

The first police official to publicly sound the alarm was PBA president Patrick Lynch. In 2004, he and the president of the sergeants’ union held a news conference at PBA headquarters, alleging that commanders were ordering cops to downgrade crimes from felonies to misdemeanors to make crime appear lower than it actually was.

Browne’s opaque version of the truth was also evident back then.

He questioned Lynch’s motives, called his allegations “inventions,” and attributed them to a personal dispute with Kelly on an unrelated issue that had led the union to approve a “no confidence” in the commissioner vote the previous month.

Mayor Mike also chimed in, calling Lynch’s allegations “outrageous.”

But Mark Pomerantz, who headed the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption, took Lynch’s claims seriously and attempted to investigate. Lacking subpoena power, he requested the department’s Quality Assurance reports of precinct crime statistics. Kelly refused to provide them. Mayor Mike looked away. So Pomerantz resigned.

The Bloomberg/Kelly charade has continued to the present.

In a recent speech to the Police Foundation, described as Kelly’s “State of the NYPD,” Kelly cited current crime statistics to show that the city is the safest it has been since 1963.

O.K., so what prompted Kelly’s memo?

A major factor seems to be the continuing embarrassment over the case of whistle-blower cop Adrian Schoolcraft. He’s the Brooklyn officer who told the department’s Quality Assurance Bureau in Oct. 2009, that commanders in the 81st precinct had ordered cops to downgrade felonies to misdemeanors and to discourage victims from filing complaints.

Three weeks later, a cop posse, led by a deputy chief, visited Schoolcraft’s apartment in Queens and dragged him against his will to Jamaica Hospital, where he was held in its psychiatric ward for six days.

A year later, Kelly disciplined the 81st precinct’s commanding officer and four other supervisors for having doctored crime statistics, just as Schoolcraft had claimed. Yet Kelly never mentioned Schoolcraft’s name.

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The crime-downgrading appears to be widespread enough that even the department’s most constant cheerleader, Peter Vallone, who heads the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, has threatened to hold public hearings.

Vallone says that his threat prompted Kelly last January to appoint a three-person commission of former prosecutors to investigate. In the year since then, one of the three has died. No findings have been made public. Browne refused to tell the Daily News for its Saturday story if the panel has finished its review.

Most recently, the New York Civil Liberties Union [NYCLU] filed a lawsuit to obtain the Quality Assurance reports from the 81st precinct. Kelly had refused to release them, citing continuing precinct investigations — of what, he will not say.

At the same time, Schoolcraft met with top NYCLU officials two weeks ago, seeking “to get access to the Quality Assurance file,” says his lawyer Jon Norinsberg, who is suing the city on Schoolcraft’s behalf for $50 million.

“The department has always denied there was a problem with its crime reporting,” said the NYCLU’s Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn. “Commissioner Kelly’s appointment of the panel last year was the first acknowledgement that there was a perception of a problem, though that panel seemed mostly to be a public relations ploy. With not a word from the panel in a year, this new memo is a telling acknowledgement that there actually is a problem.”

Your Humble Servant visited Police Plaza last week to apply for the renewal of a press pass, and discovered the building in lockdown.

First the good news. The wait on the mope line at the security station outside the building, which can take up to a half-hour, was only ten minutes. My mug shot, once posted at the inside lobby desk as a “security threat,” has apparently been removed. The cop behind the desk actually shook my hand.

Up at the Public Information Office on the 13th floor, Detective Gina Sarubbi was polite and professional. Ditto her boss, commanding officer Kim Royster, who emerged from her office to explain the department’s current procedures.

The NYPD’s legal bureau now vets applicants’ published or broadcast stories before the department decides whether to issue a press pass.

And there is a process to appeal decisions that Royster herself holds.

Then the bad news. Attempting to visit the second floor, where the in-house reporters are based, I was told that new security procedures are also in effect. My building pass was only good for the 13th floor. To go to the second floor, I needed an escort.

Det. Sarubbi, thus, replaced my former minder, Sgt.Kevin Hayes. He, after I was allowed back in Police Plaza in 2005 after being banned as a security threat, had been ordered to prevent me from leaving the reporters’ section of the second floor, known as the Shack, without official permission.

Sarubbi was kind enough to wait for me while I made my rounds of the second floor. She then escorted me out the building.

I later emailed Royster, whom I have known since her patrolwoman’s days when she sang the national anthem at police ceremonies, to confirm her current rank.

“Why?” she emailed me back.

She sounded a little like department clergyman Rabbi Alvin Kass, who also seemed afraid to respond to a routine question. Kass had attended a police-related dinner, where lobster bisque was served. When I asked him how the soup tasted, he said he was not permitted to answer.

. Richie Sheirer was known as “Bumper,” presumably for his girth. He began as a fire dispatcher, moved with former police commissioner Howard Safir to the NYPD as a deputy commissioner, served as the head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management during 9/11, and ended up as a senior vice president at Giuliani Partners. What he did in any of those jobs was unclear.

What was clear was his self-deprecating manner and his grace under pressure.

Here’s what he famously told the 9/11 Commission on May 18, 2004, when commissioners questioned the wisdom of placing the city’s command center on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center, which collapsed after the planes struck:

“I did not agree with it simply because it was on the 23rd floor of a building. And do I look like a guy that wants to walk up 23 flights?”

Sheirer died last week at age 65.

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Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt