The New York Police Department’s cover-up of its decision to show an anti-Muslim film to officers in counter- terrorism training has many culprits: the sergeant who chose the film; Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who participated in the project; and NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, who lied about it.
But there’s another party to blame for this debacle: the New York City press. While credit should be given to Michael Powell of The New York Times for bringing the issue to light, the papers and networks only mentioned in passing how deceitful the department — all the way up to Browne, a deputy commissioner for public information — had been.
Police critics, however, already knew Browne had a long history of lying to the press. When Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper-sprayed nonviolent female protesters at an Occupy Wall Street protest in Union Square last September, Browne claimed the women were obstructing police actions. This claim was later proven false by video footage.
The Daily News’ editorial board scoffed at calls from the Muslim community for Kelly’s resignation, saying that one public relations snafu shouldn’t sully Kelly’s “flawless” tenure. Revelations about the film came in the wake of concerns about an elaborate NYPD espionage program targeting Muslims that was uncovered by an Associated Press investigation. The Times’ board said that a reprimand for the sergeant who showed the film wasn’t “remotely enough,” but only called on top cop Kelly to apologize.
In the background of all this, the Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, noted that there was room for debate on whether reporters should criticize officials when their statements are clearly false or if they should let the statements stand and let readers decide. Most of the media, sadly, go with the latter. Part of this is journalism’s cult of objectivity. But there’s something more systemic in the media’s tame treatment of One Police Plaza.
Police reporter Leonard Levitt writes in his 2009 book, NYPD Confidential, “[T]he police department under Kelly is now more closed than it was under Giuliani. While Giuliani’s belligerence intimidated reporters into silence, Kelly threatens them with ‘consequences’ for negative stories.” If a reporter from one tabloid reveals something the commissioner doesn’t like, then the next big crime exclusive goes to its competitor. Levitt himself, a long-time Newsday columnist, had his press pass revoked after one too many embarrassing stories about Kelly.
And there are more insidious examples. In 2008, when three officers were acquitted in the murder of Sean Bell, the Detectives’ Endowment Association barred a Daily News reporter and four of the paper’s photographers from attending a press conference with the officers because the publication had given too much credence to the prosecution and the Bell family. Access to department insiders can make or break a crime reporter’s career, making it easy for police to scare foot soldiers of the Fourth Estate into sycophancy.
Only the website Gawker had the courage to demand the obvious: “To tell two different reporters, a year apart, that Kelly was never interviewed for a film he appeared in, and that Browne himself recommended Kelly be interviewed for [emphasis in original], is almost pathological. He is paid by New York’s taxpayers, and should be fired.”
NYPD a 2013 Campaign Issue
The New York Police Department is larger than most standing armies, and yet, unlike other city agencies it operates with nearly no independent oversight. In light of so many scandals in the department — ticket fixing, the spying on Muslim communities, violence against peaceful protesters and allegations of CompStat manipulation — the public is demanding transparency.
That is why the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), which operates in conjunction with the Urban Justice Center, is drafting legislation to create an independent oversight body that has subpoena power. Currently, the NYPD operates outside the purview of the city’s Department of Investigation, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board only investigates individual complaints, not systemic problems.
“The police have so much political independence, you have to have an independent monitoring group,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who studies policing and criminology, and serves as a PROP advisor. “The police routinely don’t come to hearings where they are invited. They resist requests for information.”
The Police Reform Organizing Project is also trying to inject the issues of police abuse into the 2013 race for mayor and other city offices, in particular, the use of stop-and-frisk in communities of color, treatment of sex workers, harassment of street vendors, aggressive tactics against demonstrators and protocol for emotional disturbed persons. The hope is that PROP can get assurances from candidates that if elected, they will attempt to rein in the police.
“I think that’s going to happen,” Vitale said.
People can get involved by visiting policereformorganizingproject.org.