As the NYPD has struggled through a brutal month, its main mouthpiece and Commissioner Ray Kelly's most trusted adviser, Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Browne, has been called out for playing fast and loose with the truth in four separate high-profile cases.
September’s incidents might mark the end of the NYPD’s scandal-proof status.
On September 5, two black public officials at the West Indian Day Parade were bullied and handcuffed by police officers who refused to let them walk into a function at the Brooklyn Museum. Browne told reporters that the officers acted after “a crowd formed and an unknown individual punched a police captain on the scene.” He denied that the men had been arrested. One of the men, City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, called that account “a bald-faced lie” and mocked Browne’s “ghost puncher,” about whom nothing has been heard since.
Just off of the parade route, 56-year-old grandmother Denise Gay was caught in the crossfire as eight police officers traded fire with career criminal Leroy Webster. Browne initially told reporters that three witnesses, including Gay’s daughter, had told police that Webster or the man Webster had shot earlier had fired the fatal shot. But the daughter, Tashmaya Gay, denied having said that, telling the Post that “the cops killed my mother,” and “there’s no way in hell” the fatal bullet could have been fired by Webster.
A few days later, a plainclothes detective in Inwood arresting a suspected pot dealer shot and killed 43-year-old grandfather John Collado. According to Browne, the undercover officer had clearly identified himself, yet Collado, who belonged to a pro-cop Facebook group and wasn’t involved in the drug buy, nonetheless put the detective in a choke hold. “The cops who responded described [the detective] as barely conscious,” Browne said. “He was nearly choked out, and his limbs were numb.” But the family’s lawyer, Patrick Brackley, told reporters that he has seen surveillance video showing that the detective hadn’t identified himself, and that while Collado was trying to break up what he thought was just a fight between his neighbor and a stranger, he was not choking the detective.
Then, last week, the pepper spraying of nonviolent Occupy Wall Street protesters by Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna quickly became a national story—in large part because of Browne’s hotly disputed version of the events. Browne contended that the spray was used “sparingly” and “after individuals confronted officers and tried to prevent them from deploying a mesh barrier—something that was edited out or otherwise not captured in the video.” Other videos of the incident then surfaced and showed no such confrontation and no warning at all from Bologna and his using the spray again a few seconds later.
Browne did not respond to several phone calls and e-mails asking for comment on his recent statements. That no-response is typical of the Bloomberg NYPD’s approach to “public information.”
A longtime observer of the NYPD—from within and outside—calls Browne’s operation “the commissioner’s image office,” and adds: “Browne answers only to Kelly, and the two of them are the only voices that speak for the department. The Public Information Office has a very low opinion of the public.”
A prosecutor who has known Browne for years said the mouthpiece “will zealously protect Kelly, who is still considering throwing his hat into the ring for the mayoralty,” and added: “He’s become more than a spokesperson—it’s not surprising he’s gone across and beyond spinning.”
Despite or perhaps because of that approach to information and message control, the 70-year-old Kelly has been one of the city’s most popular officials, with approval ratings well over 60 percent for most of the past decade. Although he’d prefer a federal appointment, Kelly hasn’t discouraged the idea that he still might step into the mayoral race if that falls through.
With the crime numbers staying down and no successful terror attack, not to mention the strong support of Mayor Bloomberg, the public has shrugged off Kelly’s past excesses, including the 2004 Republican National Convention, when nearly 2,000 protesters and passersby were arrested and held at Pier 57 with little semblance of due process, which eventually cost the city millions in settlements and legal fees. (Bologna himself is the subject of a pending suit alleging false arrest and civil rights violations.)
Meanwhile, millions of stop-and-frisks have led to hundreds of thousands of unjustified marijuana-possession arrests that flouted state law. An abrupt about-face by Kelly in an “operations order” sent out in September appears to have finally put a stop to that policy after years of obfuscation and silence from the department. The department’s arrest quotas were finally exposed last year by the Voice via tapes secretly recorded by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft. The NYPD’s attempts to discredit Schoolcraft included having officers show up at his apartment and forcibly commit him to a psych ward. Also there, according to Schoolcraft, was Browne.
Although Browne, who became chief spokesman in 2004 and has worked closely with Kelly at numerous posts since the 1990s, has dodged criticism before, that shield is crumbling. The department has taken a series of hard public hits, also including a spate of shootings in August, a spike in the subway crime rate, a series of stories exposing the formerly secret Demographics Unit (whose existence Browne had previously denied), and a ticket-fixing scandal that has led to the indictment of 17 officers. That scandal is widening—it points to cops working with drug dealers and to members of the Internal Affairs Bureau tipping off subjects of the probe as well as triggering a citywide ticketing slowdown among the rank and file.
"It’s really anti-democratic to think the department can ladle out the information it wants to in dribs and drabs," the longtime observer says. "And their contempt for the press and the City Council has, if anything, increased over the years.
"That the guy would just be throwing out misinformation over a month I think comes from a sense of, ‘Who’s going to catch us, and who’s going to punish us if they do?’"
Poverty grew nationwide last year, but the increase was even greater in New York City, the Census Bureau will report on Thursday, suggesting that New York was being particularly hard hit by the aftermath of the recession.
From 2009 to 2010, 75,000 city residents were pushed into poverty, increasing the poor population to more than 1.6 million and raising the percentage of New Yorkers living below the official federal poverty line to 20.1 percent, the highest level since 2000. The 1.4-percentage-point annual increase in the poverty rate appeared to be the largest jump in nearly two decades.
Many New Yorkers were spared the worst of the recession, but the median household income has since shriveled to levels last seen in 1980, adjusted for inflation. Household income declined among almost all groups — by 5 percent over all since the beginning of the recession in 2007, to $48,743 in 2010.
Manhattan continued to have the biggest income gap of any county in the country, with the top fifth of earners (with an average income of $371,754) making nearly 38 times as much as the bottom fifth ($9,845).
Poverty among children under 18 rose 2.9 percentage points to 30 percent. The rate also increased for every other group except people 65 and older. Single mothers, blacks and adults lacking a high school diploma fared worst. Among Hispanic single mothers in the Bronx, the poverty rate was nearly 58 percent.
The bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey paints a disturbing portrait of the city. More New Yorkers depended on some form of public assistance than in 2009, and a record 1.8 million residents — nearly one in five households — are now relying on food stamps. Fewer people had health insurance, home ownership declined and housing values plunged; 44 percent of renters were diverting at least 35 percent of their income for housing.
Unemployment rose one percentage point, and more people gave up on finding work, which may be one reason college and graduate school enrollment soared by about 50,000. More living quarters were crowded — from 7.9 percent of all houses and apartments in 2009 to 9.1 percent last year.
Though the poverty rate in the city rose faster than it did nationwide and the Bronx remained the poorest urban county in the country, New York still had a smaller proportion of poor people than many other major cities, including Miami, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston.
An influx of immigrants pushed the city’s foreign-born population to near-record highs (more than three million, and 37.2 percent). Their ranks swelled by about 50,000. Half of New Yorkers 5 and older now do not speak English at home.
The city’s poverty rate had remained about 18 percent since 2007 before climbing from 18.7 percent in 2009. The poverty rate was 20 percent in 1980, 19.3 percent in 1990 and 21.2 percent in 2000, after the dot-com bubble burst.
The 2010 federal poverty threshold for a family of three was $18,310.
Some economists suggested that federal bailout money to prop up failing financial institutions based in New York had spared the city the worst ravages of the recession, which statisticians declared over in 2009.
Advocates for the poor said the size of the problem might have been understated. “Increasing poverty is simply a confirmation of what we see every day in ever-longer lines at food pantries and soup kitchens,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “It is also latest proof our city and state policies are failing in fundamental ways.”
David R. Jones, president of the Community Service Society, an anti-poverty group, said: “Maybe because things looked so good for the well-educated and restaurants are packed, we figured that we missed this bullet. Projecting forward, I don’t think it’s getting better.”
Nationally, the Census Bureau said median household income had declined 2.3 percent to $49,445 from 2009 to 2010, and the poverty rate increased to 15.1 percent from 14.3 percent, the third consecutive annual increase.
In New York City, non-Hispanic whites took the biggest financial hit, according to the figures; their real income fell to $66,330, from $70,627. Median household income among Hispanic New Yorkers inched up to $35,887, from $34,586. Income also rose in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The city computes its own poverty rate, taking into account expenses for health and day care and higher living costs, as well as the benefits of tax credits, food stamps, school lunches and other assistance.
By its measure, the city’s poverty rate in 2009 was 19.9 percent. Mark K. Levitan, director of poverty research for the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity, said a more current poverty rate would be provided early next year.
“We will certainly see a higher poverty rate citywide as a whole,” he said, though he did not foresee as big a rise.
James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a union-supported research and advocacy group, said the latest figures “paint a disturbingly clear picture of a deteriorating living standard for most New Yorkers.”
Seeing what appeared to be the needless arrest at the West Indian Day parade of two black men, Councilman Jumaane Williams and Kirsten John Foy, an aide to the public advocate, the question came to mind: Is it time for the crime numbers to go up?
To keep those numbers down—despite a force that’s lost 8,500 officers from its peak of about 42,000, and precincts further depleted by terror assignments and other special details—the Police Department has taken a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, as has been well documented now by the Voice and others, the pressure from top brass to keep the numbers down has led to precinct commanders fudging the numbers by downgrading reports of more serious crimes to misdemeanors. The second strategy is an explosion of so-called stop-and-frisks, disproportionately aimed at young black and Latino men, that ramp up tensions on all sides despite only a small percentage of these stops resulting in arrests for serious crimes.
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bogus claims of “historic” schools gains for black and Latino students finally boiled over into public skepticism and some scandal, the lid has so far stayed on the NYPD's righteous self-assessments. With crime in fact down from its early-90s peak (though the trend line has flattened out over the last several years) and no successful terror attack in 10 years, Commissioner Ray Kelly has remained one of the city’s most popular officials. Despite press reports about the department’s aggressive use of collar and ticket quotas and its tightly controlled trickle of public information that often fails to correspond to other public indicators—like when assault numbers plummet even as the number of assaulted people needing hospitalization spikes—no outside monitor has stepped in to examine the city’s numbers.
Incredible view of the city before the fireworks last night.
Photo taken with Samsung SGH-T959V Galaxy S
This is NYC.