NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country’s Greatest Police Force
By Leonard Levitt
St. Martin’s Press, 2009
New Yorkers have often had to wait for gutsy cops to blow the whistle on abuses of power within the nation’s largest police force. Fortunately, there is another source we can turn to for a hard-hitting look into the seamy side of the NYPD: Former Newsday police reporter and columnist Leonard Levitt.
In his new book, NYPD Confidential, Levitt follows the rise and fall of former Police Commissioners Lee Brown, Bill Bratton, Howard Safir and the now-disgraced Bernie Kerik. While Levitt’s writing style is somewhat impressionistic, we learn a lot about the personalities and practices of our last three mayor and their police cheifs.
In his 305-page account, Levitt details the introduction of the much-vaunted Compstat program by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s commissioner, William Bratton. Compstat — which, despite its name, isn’t a computer system — uses maps to assign additional police to places in the city where there have been muggings and other crimes. It’s been criticized as encouraging competition between precincts to show lower crime rates, and for discouraging crime reporting. Levitt initially lauded Compstat, but later became a critic. (In fact, Levitt’s most recent columns follow the detectives who exposed the practice of downgrading crimes or refusing to accept a police report, and who now face police harassment as reprisal.)
Bratton, the first of Guiliani’s three commissioners, reaped the credit for Compstat and brought down the homicide rate by 18 percent. He gloried in the attention, but unwittingly crossed a line when a feature about him in the New Yorker implied that he, not Giuliani, was integral to that success. He was soon forced out and replaced by Giuliani’s fire commissioner, Howard Safir.
Safir succeeded in reducing the homicide rate by half from the Dinkins days, but in doing so, he tripled the size of the Street Crimes Unit (which was renamed but not disbanded after a lawsuit). The aggressive approach of the SCU led directly to the death of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in a bout of contagion shooting in February 1999. Safir was also commissioner when Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was mistaken for someone who had punched a cop, arrested, taken to the bathroom of the 70th precinct for a “tune-up” (in departmental parlance) and sodomized by Officer Justin Volpe with a broken broomstick.
Safir was the first to clamp down on unfavorable press coverage. After the New York Daily News printed a cover photo of police manipulating the timing on a traffic light (to increase the number of tickets they could give out) in the Bronx, Safir barred the Daily News reporter from press conferences. But that was mild compared to what happened to the photographer. That same day, police showed up at the man’s house with a 13-year-old warrant and illegally released his history of arrests (not convictions) to the press.
Then comes the discredited Bernie Kerik, who used his post-9/11 fame to sell Taser stun guns to police departments around the country. His reward for the efforts? Kerik earned $6.2 million when he sold his shares in Taser stock. The crime he is about to be jailed for involves the use of his office by a garbage carting company with mob ties, in exchange for which his Riverdale apartment was renovated to include a rotunda with a marble entryway.
Levitt documents the successes and failures of successive commissions tasked with rooting out police corruption, like the Dinkins-era Mollen Commission, reserving some of his harshest criticism for the kind of inter-commission competition that undermined this goal. And while Levitt shows awareness of race relations in the city, he describes the Diallo and Louima assaults as “tragic incidents,” not as evidence of systematic police brutality. His narrative is motivated by a sincere concern for dangers individual officers face, but the high point on Levitt’s moral compass is making the city safe for tourists and shoppers by eliminating street crime.
To the credit of his editors at Newsday, Levitt was encouraged to cover the politics and policies behind police practices. The book provides tidbits like this: a 1994 survey of NYPD officers revealed that they “viewed the department’s first priority as writing summonses. Holding down overtime was second. Fighting crime was seventh.”
Levitt’s columns were critical enough to lead Police Benevolent Association head Phil Caruso to call for a boycott of Newsday. In January 2007, Levitt found himself not only barred from One Police Plaza, but apparently a target of Ray Kelly and David Cohen’s Intelligence Division. Levitt ascribes this animosity to the fact that he exposed a junket to Singapore and London taken by Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Richard Falkenrath.