One Police Plaza

Farewell to The Shack

April 20, 2009

Dust covered the walls. Built-up grime sealed the windows closed. Sometimes mouse droppings littered the floor. The filth was so bad that Newsday hired a monthly cleaning service to wipe the place clean.

Welcome to The Shack, the second-floor warren of tiny, dirt-encrusted rooms at One Police Plaza that house the city’s full-time police reporters.

While reporters griped over the mess and appealed for mercy from city cleaners who kept the rest of the building tidy, those who made covering the NYPD their careers loved it there. Many felt that their presence inside Police Plaza served a larger purpose: their reporting helped keep the department honest.

Modern-day police commissioners appeared to have accepted this wisdom since reporters have been based inside Police Plaza since the building opened in 1973, the last of John Lindsay’s eight years as mayor.

As the Daily News recently editorialized: “There is a reason why the Police Department’s storied history is so well known. It’s because police beat reporters were there to tell the stories.”

That’s why the decision by the supposedly enlightened Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordering police reporters out of the Police Plaza by July 31, shocked those who thought they knew him.

Kelly, who apparently acted without consulting Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the department needed the space. Bloomberg backed him, at least publicly, calling Kelly’s decision to evict the press “a construction issue, not a First Amendment issue.”

Referring to police reporters, Bloomberg added gratuitously: “If you don’t think you can cover it [the department] from a distance, maybe they should find somebody who can.”

With the News and the Post in full hue and cry, Kelly backtracked. By week’s end, he said the media could remain at Police Plaza after all, although it is unclear in what circumstances this will be.

Editorialized the Post: “This isn’t about special treatment for reporters; if anything it’s in the NYPD’s best interests to have them on hand at all times to cover breaking stories and have immediate access to police officials. ”

Indeed, police reporting in New York City has had a long and fabled history, dating to the late 19th century when Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner and Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis were muckraking police reporters. Police reporters then worked across from the old headquarters on Mulberry Street from apartments, known as shacks. After headquarters was moved a few blocks to Center Street, those apartments were combined into a building across the street from headquarters, called “The Shack.”

Although the name endures more than 100 years later, the era of police reporters from the mainstream media holding the police department and its commissioner accountable has long since passed.

Despite Bloomberg’s campaign promise of more transparency, the police department under Kelly has become more closed now than during the darkest Giuliani years.

While having a presence inside One Police Plaza may have provided access to police officials in the past, these days no one in authority openly talks to reporters, save for Kelly and his spokesman, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, who runs the dysfunctional unit known as the Public Information Office. Fear of angering Kelly by straying from his “one voice” message keeps other top police officials mute.

More important, those who argue that police reporters belong in The Shack miss a larger point. Regardless of where police reporters hang out, their coverage of the department must be tough, not slavish.

Since 9/11, reporters have had to contend with the reluctance of editors to print stories critical of the department and of Kelly. This is particularly true of his anti-terrorism policies because Kelly portrays himself as standing between New York City and another attack.

Several of these stories, which reflect poorly on Kelly, have appeared in this column, despite Your Humble Servant’s banishment by Kelly from Police Plaza as a “security threat.” Among them:

Kelly’s five-year feud with the FBI, resulting in both wasteful competition and rival terrorism investigations which hurt both agencies and, more importantly, jeopardize all New Yorkers by dividing forces that should be united against our enemies.

Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen sending Intel detectives on dubious investigations outside their jurisdictions without informing local authorities. In one case, New Jersey officials requested that the NYPD detectives leave their state. In another, the detectives were nearly arrested by Massachusetts state police.

The two leased luxury cars, paid for by tax-payers, and a first-class junket to the South Seas enjoyed by Deputy Commissioner for Counter-Terrorism, Richard Falkenrath.

The Intel detective who under, the guise of conducting a terrorism investigation, obtained a warrant from the Queens District Attorney to access the telephone records of his girl friend.

Cohen’s use of Intelligence Division detectives to conduct a private investigation for Daily News Publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, who discovered he was being followed and wanted people to believe his pursuers were terrorists.

While it may be too much to ask the News to report this story about its publisher, what about the Post, which has remained silent on the subject?

Perhaps Post editors hesitated, thinking that Cohen might — or did — offer the same favor to Rupert Murdoch.

As for Bloomberg, he, too, displayed a disregard of reporters in his treatment of a radio newsman last week. The mayor’s behavior was all the more astonishing because he unfairly criticized the radio man, who relies on a wheelchair. The reporter had had difficulty reaching for and turning off his tape-recorder after someone at a crowded mayoral news conference bumped into him and started it playing.

For a full minute, Bloomberg huffed and puffed and harrumphed at the poor fellow, who was struggling to reach down from his wheelchair and shut off the sound.

Later, after a mortified onlooker [City Council Speaker Christine Quinn] clued him in, Bloomberg expressed regrets to the reporter, saying he was sorry if he offended him. That’s apparently what passes for a billionaire’s apology.

Take it to the bank, folks, Kelly’s and Bloomberg’s actions last week will alter their relationship with the media for the rest of their terms. Whether or not Kelly remains as commissioner, Mayor Mike is going to have a rough third term.