What do NYC reporters want to know from the city's top cop? Forget crime rates or terror trials – where's my parking permit?!
On Tuesday night, 33 floors above 42nd Street, working and retired journalists gathered to question New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Billed by the sponsoring New York Press Club as an “on-the-record” Q&A with the city's top cop, the event turned into a complaint session about press-police relations.
Kelly, dressed in a crisp blue suit and sporting a white pocket handkerchief, began the evening by laying out the NYPD's plans for the upcoming, though as-yet unscheduled trial of five 9/11 terror suspects. New Yorkers, he said, should expect random vehicle stops, sniper teams and 2,000 metal barriers around the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse on Worth Street in downtown Manhattan. Kelly explained that, with 6,000 fewer police officers on the streets today than in 2001, the city would rely heavily on overtime, and has asked the federal government for $215 million to cover the costs of the first year of the trial, which, he said, “could go several years.”
Under questioning, Kelly admitted that he had not been consulted by the Department of Justice on the decision to hold the 9/11 trial in New York City, and was not given the opportunity to make recommendations about how such a move would affect the city. Indeed, he said he was only informed of the decision 20 minutes before it was publicly announced. Still, Kelly said he told the federal government that “we can provide the security–provided we get the money.”
Once Kelly stepped down from the podium, moderator David Diaz (a former television news anchor and current lecturer for the journalism school at the City University of New York), perhaps inadvertently opened a can of worms when he invited the audience to relate stories of “the alleged uselessness” of the department's Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Relations, otherwise known as DCPI.
“There's a growing unease and tension and hostility even between members of the working press and the NYPD,” said Diaz.
After a knowing murmur through the crowd, hands shot up.
“When you call DCPI, nobody knows anything for hours and hours,” complained one reporter.
“When I send follow-up questions to the crime notification system I don't get a response back,” said a Village Voice reporter, referring to the automatic emails the department sends out to alert press to homicides and other crimes. “What message does that send?”
A New York Post reporter relayed a story about one of his paper's reporters being physically pushed by a DCPI officer, and told Kelly that the reporter didn't dare file a complaint for fear of losing precious access.
“For 35 years my company enjoyed press credentials with the police department,” said a reporter with Black Radio Network. “But the past year we've migrated…to the Internet and were denied credentials. Can you explain?”
Out of the issue of credentials came the issue of press vehicle placards, which reporters complained weren't respected or understood by police (“I've been towed!”) and were in short supply.
Kelly's response to most of these questions and complaints was similar: “Well, I think that's something we can look into,” he said, but made no promises to follow-up on specific cases. He said he would like to see the NYPD get out of the business of issuing credentials and press placards–which they are already limiting–altogether: “We have other things to do.”
By the time the various grievances had been aired, there was little time left in the 90-minute session to discuss much else. When one reporter asked him to muse on the historical role and responsibility of the police in protecting our freedoms, including the freedom of the press, Kelly wouldn't bite, saying only that there was a lot of “gray area” in police-press relations, and that there were just some cops that “don't like the press.”
The commissioner also avoided answering questions about whether a recently arrested Queens imam was a paid NYPD informant, referring the questioner to the department's website for information.
When The Crime Report asked if Kelly still credited the department's stop-and-frisk operations with lowering the crime rate, he was quick to defend the controversial program.
“I think it's a life-saving practice,” said Kelly. “Young men in this city ages 18 to 24 are killing each other with guns. In 2008, we collected 8,000 weapons – mostly knives – from stop-and-frisk. I think that policy has saved a lot of lives and is one of the reasons crime is at its lowest. We're going to continue to do it.”
Julia Dahl is a contributing editor for The Crime Report.