One Police Plaza

The NYPD's Titanic Problem

June 6, 2016

Like the famed ocean liner, the greatest police department in the history of the world — as it likes to portray itself — seems headed toward an iceberg while the skipper, Mayor Bill de Blasio, seems oblivious to the dangers ahead. Perhaps the mayor is unaware that two-thirds of an iceberg resides beneath the surface.

That iceberg is, of course, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s corruption investigation, which so far has led to the modifications, transfers and/or retirements of 10 chiefs and inspectors as well as a probably related suicide.

So far, there have been two significant arrests. Alex Lichtenstein was arrested after he allegedly bribed cops at the pistol license division, and Hamlet Peralta, a Harlem restaurant owner, friendly with top brass, was arrested after he allegedly bilked investors of $12 million. At least one top cop lost money, as did Jonah Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, both of whom allegedly bribed top NYPD officers with gifts.

Two of those NYPD officers filed for retirement last week. A third, Deputy Chief John Sprague, was placed on modified assignment for refusing to cooperate with the feds. Commissioner Bill Bratton had promoted Sprague just a few months ago, which tells you how close Preet is playing his cards.

Somewhat bizarrely, Sprague’s lawyer added that Sprague would answer questions put to him by the police department. Make of that what you will.

The word around Police Plaza is that Bratton, said to be on vacation in Italy last week, is allowing the top brass to retire without preferring departmental charges. That means they would be able to keep their pensions should indictments follow. The message this sends to the public, like having his dues and expenses paid by the Police Foundation at the Harvard Club, is hardly a positive one.

Meanwhile, at a news conference last Thursday at Police Plaza, Mayor de Blasio acted as though he didn’t have a care. He resembled Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman with a “What — me worry?” look.

He pronounced the retirement process for the scandalized top brass as “perfectly appropriate.” Asked if the scandal was affecting the department, he said that it was not “stopping the men and women from making gun arrests.” As evidence, the mayor tried to pass off as news the fact that, as his press release put it, “New York has the Safest Start to 2016 in Modern New York City History [with] 96 fewer Shootings and 19 Fewer Murders Year-to-Date Compared with 2015.” [Actually, that is news although it didn’t get much play.]

The bigger news is that no one — probably not even Preet — knows for certain where this corruption investigation is heading. Prosecutors disclosed last week they have 30,000 emails from Peralta’s laptop and three to four months of wiretaps. In return for leniency, you can also bet that Peralta, Lichtenstein, Rechnitz and Reichberg are singing like jaybirds about their dealings with the NYPD’s top brass.

Remember, the Knapp Commission began with one cop, Frank Serpico, making allegations about one NYPD plainclothes unit — his own. The result? The commission discovered wholesale, systemic corruption right up to the commissioner’s office.

Robert Wasserman, to whom the Police Foundation is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars as a consultant for Commissioner Bratton, denied he was the department’s “unofficial police commissioner,” as this column described him last week. He added that he had nothing to do with departmental transfers and promotions and that he did not know Beth Correia, a Los Angeles lawyer who is friendly with Bratton and whom the city is paying $175,000, although she has no office and reports to no one.

However, a police officer has told NYPD Confidential Wasserman introduced him to Correia at a meeting with other officers. Go figure.

Copyright © 2016 Leonard Levitt