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They Don't Come Any Finer
August 29, 2016
Like the British monarchy or the New York Yankees, the NYPD can put on a show. So the department did last week at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the funeral of one of its all-time greats, former First Deputy John Timoney.
The department closed down Fifth Avenue from 49th to 54th Street. Scores of uniformed officers lined a side of the avenue to honor Timoney, who died of complications from lung cancer. The Emerald Society’s pipe and drum corps marched to a slow drum dirge. A half-dozen helicopters flew low overhead. Across from St. Pat’s stood outgoing police Commissioner Bill Bratton and former Commissioners Ray Kelly and Richard Condon. Next to Condon stood incoming Commissioner James O’Neill, and the former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell.
What no one remarked upon, at least not publicly, was that, coming a few weeks after Bratton announced his resignation, Timoney’s passing marked the end of an era.
His was an Horatio Alger story. Born in Dublin, he arrived in New York at age 12 and grew up in Washington Heights. His father died as Timoney entered his senior year at Cardinal Hayes High School, a school founded for the sons of Catholic immigrants. When his mother and sister returned to Ireland a year later, Timoney and his younger brother, Ciaran, who would also join the NYPD, refused to go.
They remained in their apartment, a six-story walkup between Audubon and Amsterdam Avenues, where the rent was $69 a month. Timoney supported them by driving a Coca Cola truck by day and working as a police trainee by night, answering telephones at the 17th precinct on the East Side of Manhattan from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and from midnights until 8 a.m. earning $112 every two weeks.
With his red hair and ruddy complexion, his New York accent combined with a brogue he never lost, Timoney epitomized Hollywood’s image of a tough Irish cop. Once when I turned on the TV for the gangster movie “Public Enemy,” the sound came up before the picture and I thought I heard his voice. It was that of another city boy — James Cagney.
When Bratton became commissioner in 1994 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he jumped Timoney over 16 senior officers, and made him, at age 45, the youngest chief of department in NYPD history. A year later, Bratton appointed him first deputy.
Perhaps his finest moment came in 1995 during the 30th Precinct scandal, which led to the convictions of 36 cops on drug related corruption — and to the suicides of two cops.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office, working with the Mollen Commission, seemed in competition with prosecutors from then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. “Nobody was speaking up for the cops,” Timoney said at the time. “We were eating our own.”
Timoney began calling the prosecutors, pleading with them to finish their investigation before another cop killed himself. “You’re getting your names and faces on television,” he said, “while playing a numbers game over cops’ lives.”
While the NYPD was the heart of his life, Timoney also became an educated man. He obtained an undergraduate degree in American history from John Jay College and earned two master’s degrees, one from Fordham University, a second from Hunter College. He started a department book club, where officers discussed “The Iliad” and “Crime and Punishment.”
Peter Scotto, the head of Mount Holyoke’s Russian literature department, invited him to give a talk, which was called: “Just the Facts, Mr. Raskolnikov: the NYPD’s top cop reflects on Crime and Punishment in Dostoyevsky’s classic novel.”
“His talk,” wrote Scotto in an email, “was a marvel. He had a complete command of textual detail, and he critiqued Porfiry Petrovich's (the chief investigator's) handling of the case from a professional point of view. In short, he approved. He remarked that it was clear that Porifiry ‘liked’ Raskolnikov for the murder from the very beginning, and it was astute on his part to let him ‘walk around' for a while so that he could give himself away. … In my mind it remains the single most memorable evening the Russian Department has ever mounted.”
In 1996, when he hinted at his retirement, Bratton suggested that Timoney succeed him. As Bratton was feuding with Giuliani, his recommendation became Timoney’s kiss of death. When the mayor passed him over and appointed Howard Safir, Timoney called Safir a “lightweight.” Giuliani threatened to bust him to captain with a resulting $20,000 loss of his pension. Only a threat by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association dissuaded him.
In 1998, upon Bratton’s recommendation, Rendell, then the mayor of Philadelphia, appointed Timoney police commissioner, where, in a nod to the city’s Hispanic population, Timoney gave part of his inaugural speech in Spanish. In 2003, he moved on to Miami to head that city’s department, and later advised the Middle East country of Bahrain on security matters.
Like many great men, Timoney may have devoted more time to his job than to his family. As teenagers, his two children, Christine and Sean, had “travails,” as Deputy Commissioner John Miller put it. Both overcame them. Then in 2006, Christine’s daughter Leah was born.
“They [she and her younger brother Ryan] distracted him from the chemo's side effects and were a great comfort and blessing to him,” Timoney’s wife Noreen wrote in an email. “They called him Pop Pop. Ryan danced and sang; Leah wrote poems and read stories.”
At Timoney’s funeral service at St. Pat’s, 10-year-old Leah fearlessly walked to the mike and before the hundreds of mourners said, “I love you, Pop Pop.”
The irrepressible former NYPD detective, security consultant, occasional private eye and ubiquitous Fox News blowhard says he’s changed his registration from Republican to Democrat so he can run in the Democratic primary against Mayor de Blasio.
His issue will be — what else? — crime, which Dietl says is growing and going underreported. “I’m sick and tired of hearing that crime is down,” he says. He cites a recent mugging of his son in the East Village. “My son said, ‘What’s the point in reporting it? It won’t help me get back my watch or my wallet.’”
He says he himself was almost mugged outside the Fox News offices and never reported the incident. “It was during the so-called Days of Rage before the two cops [Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu] were assassinated. I was at a bar with Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera. After I walked them to their car, three guys came up to me and asked where I was going. I knew what was happening. I’d worked as a decoy and been robbed numerous times. I put my hand on my gun over my coat and said, ‘I’ll put a cap up your ass.’”
So who would he appoint police commissioner? “I would have appointed John Timoney,” he said. In fact, Timoney had served for a year and a half as Dietl’s chief executive officer at his security company after leaving the police department in 1996.
“I like the guy who’s in there now,” Dietl said, referring to incoming Commissioner Jim O’Neill. “He’s a smart, hard-working guy but he will need support from the mayor.”
To demonstrate his cross-party appeal, Dietl said he planned to have dinner with Joe Biden in Southampton over the weekend. “Some Democratic Greeks friends arranged it.”
Dietl later called in to say that what he’d thought would be an intimate dinner with the vice president turned out to be a dinner with Biden and 400 other people.
Before you laugh him off as showman with no political savvy, remember that’s just what people said about another unlikely candidate — Donald Trump, whom Dietl unabashedly supports.
Copyright © 2016 Leonard Levitt