Newsday Scribe, Cops In Grudge Match

Newsday's intrepid cops columnist Leonard Levitt writes in Friday's editions about the new restrictions police brass—whom he has tormented for years with hard-hitting columns—are placing on him.

Levitt took the buyout Newsday recently offered its employees but is still writing the column under contract. When a recent story ended with a tag line describing Levitt as a "freelance reporter," the NYPD saw its opening: Levitt says they revoked his building pass, assigned him a "minder," restricted him to the second floor of One Police Plaza, and insisted that he make appointments if he wanted to go anywhere else in the building.

Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Browne told the Observer that Newsday tried to pull a fast one by disguising the change in Levitt's status. Page Six in the Post echoes that sentiment, saying Newsday "tried to keep it quiet." But Levitt's buyout was no secret from the Daily News, who wrote about it December 3.

In an email to me, Browne said that the police grant only a limited number of building ID cards to full-time reporters. These cards allow members of the press to bypass the magnetometer on entry. Other visitors, including cops who work outside of HQ, can still get in, but they must go through the scanner and get a paper pass.

"Levitt's ID was not renewed because his status changed with Newsday. That is, he was no longer a full time staffer. Similar changes in status led us to take or deactivate the cards of at least four other reporters," Browne wrote.

"Despite his change in status from a full time staffer to a freelance writer, Newsday asked that Levitt be allowed to retain the building ID. We declined," Browne wrote. "Were we to allow Newsday to carve out an exception to who is given space and access cards to police headquarters, we would be disingenuous and unfair to all other freelancers when we tell them, as we do now, that they may not have a building ID or space in the shack because they don't meet the criteria of being a full time employee of an established news organization." As it is, Browne says, the PD has a hard time accommodating the space needs of all the news organizations that want slots at One Police Plaza.

Responding to a question, Browne says that the other restrictions on Levitt are not extraordinary. He denies there is a minder and says all reporters have to make appointments for interviews, but acknowledged that without a building ID, Levitt cannot get into DCPI's 13th floor offices without being buzzed in.

Levitt tells the Voice that the new rules won't hamper his reporting at all. "After I've gotten over the intimidation and harassment factor I'm generally able to do my job," he says, adding that the new restrictions are "part of a pattern of harassment by Police Commissioner Kelly that's gone on for the last two years."

According to Levitt, the problems began with a March 2003 column he wrote about the departure of Lt. Gen. Frank Libutti, who served as Kelly's top counterterrorism official for just over a year. In the piece, Levitt asks, "Will someone in the department explain exactly what he did?" The column doesn't criticize Libutti as much as question how much of Kelly's anti-terror program was the real deal, and how much was window dressing.

Kelly was so furious about the piece that he wrote a letter to Newsday's editor in which he said Levitt's "pettiness was matched only by his stunning ignorance of the facts" and accusing the reporter of doing "a great disservice to Frank Libutti in attempting recently to ridicule and diminish his historic contributions to the New York City Police Department."

Things escalated from there. Levitt says Kelly went out to Newsday's headquarters in 2003 to get him fired, taking a "day off from fighting crime and terrorism." Browne, in the Observer, denies that Kelly sought Levitt's dismissal.

Other Newsday scribes are also getting the cold shoulder. "At Newsday we just get treated differently," says one of the paper's cop beat reporters, Sean Gardiner. "We just don't get the access" that the Daily News, Post and Times enjoy.

On December 19, Daryl Khan wrote a piece about the 101st Precinct, highlighting the 50 percent drop in crime there since 2001, but was unable to talk to the precinct commander. When Rocco Parascandola wrote in November 2003 about Red Hook's 76th Precinct—a former high-crime zone where there had not been a murder for a year—he included the line: "Newsday was prohibited from speaking with precinct commanders, officers or detectives about what measures police have used to help drive crime down in Red Hook."

In a December 21 piece about an increase in crime in the 62nd Precinct, Parascandola wrote: "The NYPD, continuing a year-long policy regarding Newsday crime statistic stories, declined to comment or allow the precinct commander, Capt. Frank Cangiarella, to be interviewed."

Meanwhile, precinct commanders were quoted in the Post on December 26 and in the Daily News on October 31 and December 30. Precinct commanders have been quoted three times in the Times since December 1. "There is a double standard because Newsday in general is tough on the police and Lenny is particularly tough," Gardiner said.

The NYPD denies any separate standard for Newsday. "There is no policy in place restricting access to any one individual firm," Coan said. He says "hundreds and hundreds of requests come in," and adds that he speaks to Newsday's Police Plaza staff daily. Asked if Newsday gets access to officers in the field, Coan says, "From time to time they get to talk to officers in the field."

"You can't just pull precinct commanders and make them available," Coan says, adding that comparing clips among the papers was "unfair" because it's possible Newsday's requests came late in the day when no interview could be arranged.

It seems odd that all of those requests by Newsday were rejected merely because of timing. But Coan insists, "It's all based on the individual request."

Still, Coan could not disguise his contempt for Levitt's work. Levitt and Gardiner say the department has banned Levitt's column from the file of newspaper clippings it distributes up to two or three times a day. The file contains daily and weekly items, English and Spanish press. But not Levitt's "One Police Plaza Confidential." Browne denies that Kelly has banned anything. But Coan certainly is not a Levitt fan.

"We put police-related, police-worthy items in," Coan says of the clip file. Asked if that includes Levitt's stuff, Coan answers, "It doesn't include gossip columns."

This is not the first time Levitt has wrestled with police brass; Rudy's least-liked top cop, Howard Safir, had a notoriously poisonous relationship with the press. But this is different, says Levitt. "With Safir, it was strictly personality. Safir didn't know better. Kelly knows exactly what he's doing."

Adding to he and his colleagues' woes, says Levitt, is that "the culture of Newsday is not really suited to New York City. Newsday is much more restrained in responding to attacks like this" than other city papers would be. "Kelly takes this restraint as a sign of weakness." A request to discuss the Levitt situation with a Newsday editor was not met.

 


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