Paul Browne leaves an NYPD largely under siege

Paul Browne, the New York City Police Departments

Paul Browne, the New York City Police Departments Deputy Commissioner of Public Information speaks to reporters in front of Federal Court about summations during the Stop, Question and Frisk trial in Manhattan. The Stop, Question and Frisk trial questioned the legality of certain police tactics. (May 20, 2013) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

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When he took over as police commissioner in early 2002, Ray Kelly gave top aide Paul Browne -- and most of the others working at 1 Police Plaza -- small blue cloth bags to use in case police headquarters was ever attacked by terrorists. Inside was a small flash light, a protective dust mask, a whistle and a compass to help if there was ever a need to escape the building.

Last Friday, the 64-year-old Browne, who has spent the past nine years knowing well enough how to navigate the back stairways and complex bureaucracy of the NYPD, left the building for the last time to take a coveted post as chief spokesman for the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He has said he is looking forward to international travel in connection with the university programs.

After spending nearly a decade as Kelly's chief media spokesman, Browne leaves the department as it is besieged by a variety of critics, the most important being Manhattan federal Judge Shira Scheindlin.

In a controversial ruling, Scheindlin found that the NYPD unconstitutionally enforced its stop-and-frisk policy against minorities and in the process knocked one of the law enforcement tactics Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg contend has helped the city drive murders and other serious crimes to new historic lows. On Friday, the city filed a notice of appeal in the case.

As the NYPD's chief flack, Browne often was out front defending its tactics, speaking out in support of the department's crime-fighting strategy to assure Kelly's reputation as one of the city's best police commissioners went unchallenged. To civil libertarians and other critics, Browne's bearded visage was the unacceptable face of a brazen police force. Some critics in journalism said he kept too tight a rein on information, accusing him of lying at times.

"I don't think he will be missed," said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who locked horns with Browne over the years.

In a final interview last Thursday, Browne spoke freely and sometimes bluntly about the criticism he and the NYPD have faced.

In his defense, he said: "There is no question that, particularly in the nature of police work, that you can always do a better job with courtesy.

"The police department is not perfect, we are in the business of, in the minimum, inconveniencing people, telling them no, sometimes arresting them, using force, sometimes deadly force . . . so it is important to be as courteous as possible," Brown said.

He was particularly critical of Scheindlin's decision, which he called "wrongheaded." He also expressed concern about the next mayor being unable to resist the pressure of undefined special-interest groups in running the city. But at the same time, he professed a deep admiration for the media in New York, despite the brickbats he has felt.

Awakened at all hours for emergencies or when officers were shot, even killed, Browne found the job invigorating.

"It puts you at the center of everything that is literally life and death in the City of New York, everyday, and that is a privilege," Browne said. "It never, ever burned me out."

"This may sound a little hokey, you get to speak on behalf of the greatest police department, I would argue, in the world," Browne said. "For me personally to work with somebody [like] Ray Kelly, of unquestioned character and integrity and devotion to duty . . . I consider myself privileged to have the job."

Still, Browne was always distressed by the line-of-duty deaths of officers. He also said some crime scenes, like that involving the alleged murder in October 2012 by nanny Yoselyn Ortega of two children in her care, left him shaken.

Browne and Kelly first worked together when Lee Brown was commissioner in the Dinkins administration. Kelly was a first deputy commissioner and Browne an assistant on policy issues. It was over a pizza one night at police headquarters that they began to bond, remembered Browne. When Kelly took an assignment from President Bill Clinton to rebuild Haiti's police, he tapped Browne as his aide. After that, Browne and Kelly seemed joined at the hip, and when Kelly was chosen by Bloomberg as police commissioner in 2002, he pulled Browne in as a special policy adviser, then gave him the job in 2004 as chief spokesman.

As department spokesman, Browne was the visible personification of what Kelly, and Bloomberg, were doing about crime. But civil libertarians said the crime fighting came with a government conceit.

"The arrogance in this case is synonymous with a tin ear," the NYCLU's Lieberman said. "I am not sure how much is attributable to Paul Browne himself, but the focus on spinning everything so that the NYPD looks perfect and beyond criticism has perhaps clouded the judgment and contributed to the massive disconnect between the NYPD and the reality on stop-and-frisk."

"The whole thing of race is a red herring," said one retired state judge, who didn't want to be named, about police tactics. "It is the way things are done and the politics."

Franklin Zimring, a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, who wrote a favorable book about NYPD tactics, also said last week that the current furor over stop-and-frisk basically revolves around police civility and courtesy. If both sides had engaged in an early dialogue about stop-and-frisk tactics, litigation might have been avoided, he believes.

But Browne thinks the NYPD was an easy target in an election year in which Democratic contenders needed an issue.

"I think that fight was going to be launched in any event by critics of the department who were frustrated by the fact that despite their criticism -- and I am talking about special interests and the editorial pages of certain newspapers -- that the police commissioner's favorability rating remained high."

Kelly was well-liked because people wanted their neighborhoods to be safe, and they knew he was going to stay the course regardless of the political criticism, opined Browne.

Of Scheindlin's ruling, Browne said it sprung from a misunderstanding by the judge of the realities of police work.

"This was a wrongheaded decision," Browne said. "In my view the judge has so fundamentally misunderstood what is going on in the more crime-prone neighborhoods of the city and what police do in a good faith and lawful way to protect the poorest people in this city. The language of the decision is insulting and it is wrong."

Although Scheindlin's ruling generated talk about a tarnished city's anti-crime legacy, Browne said that is something Kelly was never concerned about.

"People who know Commissioner Kelly the best know he is focused on what is immediately in front of him," Browne stressed. "I have never, ever, heard him utter the word 'legacy.' "

Looking back, Browne admitted that he sometimes spoke too quickly in an effort to get reporters information and made mistakes that came back to bite him. Among those was his initial denial to having set up a film interview for Kelly, a brief segment of which turned up in a film critical of radical Islam. Browne later admitted that he did approve the interview.

"I did set it up. I told people that after the fact," Browne said. "Yeah, I took the brunt of that, that is why you call [my job] a flack."

This week, the city council is scheduled to vote on whether to override Bloomberg's veto of the measure to create a permanent inspector general over the police and a ban on "bias" policing. Browne thinks both measures are unnecessary. After Scheindlin appointed former prosecutor Peter Zimroth to monitor police stop-and-frisk activity, Browne thinks the council measure is "superfluous."

Browne wonders what will happen with a new mayoral administration.

"My concern is that depending on who becomes mayor there could be a return to a period of trying to say 'yes' to everyone and saying yes to everyone might erode the type of commitment to keeping the city as safe as it has been over the last decade," Browne said. "I mean 'yes' to these small cluster of critics."

A former reporter in Albany and New York City, Browne has a deep affection for newspapers and appreciates the added financial burden media companies are under and the demands of journalism with 24-hour news cycles.

Before leaving the building for the last time Friday, Browne stopped by the "shack," the place where reporters have offices in police headquarters, and said his goodbyes.

Back in his old office on the 13th floor, Browne left the little blue escape bag for his successor, John McCarthy, hoping he will never need it.

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