Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had a problem.
No, it was not an increase in citywide crime or a new terrorism threat. Rather, a top-ranking officer—an inspector, a badge below a chief in the department—had been involved in a shooting in Washington, D.C.
The inspector—Robert L. Wheeler III, the commanding officer of Transit Borough Brooklyn—had shot one of four teenagers who allegedly tried to rob him, grazing an arm. After doing so, Wheeler did not remain at the scene as officers are required to do. Because of that, say numerous NYPD sources, Washington police could not immediately question Wheeler, examine his weapon, or determine how many shots he fired. Nor could they determine whether or not he was fit for duty—i.e., sober.
Instead of waiting, Wheeler went inside a house his family owns in the northwest section of the city and called 911. He reported the robbery but never mentioned the shooting. When D.C. police came to the house to interview him, according to sources and scattered news accounts, Wheeler described the teens, but did not identify himself as a police officer.
The incident occurred Friday night, December 9. On Saturday, December 10, Wheeler returned to New York with his weapon. On Sunday, two days after the shooting, he finally told authorities—in this case, the NYPD—that he had shot someone.
By any standard, police or otherwise, Wheeler’s failings were egregious. “A complete exercise of poor judgment,” a senior NYPD official conceded. A retired NYPD chief put it this way: “Leaving the scene of a shooting incident where someone is hit and in a foreign jurisdiction and there is no change in his duty status? I can certainly tell you that this would be an offense punishable by immediate suspension after just a preliminary investigation.”
Yet Kelly took no immediate action.
Not until December 28, three weeks after the incident, did Kelly act. Instead of suspending Wheeler, however, Kelly placed him on “modified assignment.” Wheeler surrendered his gun and shield, but continued to draw his pay. He has been transferred to Transit headquarters at Jay Street and works in the office of Chief James Hall, a department official said. Wheeler did not return calls to the Voice seeking comment. Department spokesman Paul Browne also did not return calls.
Kelly may have hesitated to discipline Wheeler because of the inspector’s race, a factor in New York police events that is never far from the surface. Wheeler is one of only a handful of blacks in top departmental positions; among the department’s 39,000 officers there are only five black inspectors and three black chiefs. Most of the top black officers have not come up through the ranks of the NYPD. Rather, they entered via the Housing or Transit police departments when the three police forces merged a decade ago under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
In 1994, just before the merger, Wheeler was among a group of fellow black transit officers guarding the hospital room of Desmond Robinson, the black undercover transit officer shot in the subway by Peter Del Debbio, a white NYPD detective who had mistaken Robinson for a criminal. According to NYPD lore, when Del Debbio and top NYPD brass arrived at the hospital to reconcile with Robinson, Wheeler and his transit crew refused them entry. Many white officers in the NYPD viewed that action as racially motivated. Black officers saw it as the NYPD versus the Transit Police.
A decade later, department sources say, Kelly hoped to promote Wheeler to chief, but a problem arose. Kelly transferred Wheeler—who was listed in the 2004 NYPD roster book as the commanding officer of Transit Borough Queens—to the Equal Employment Opportunity office as its commanding officer. But Wheeler tangled with EEO Deputy Commissioner Neldra Zeigler, who happens to be the wife of Douglas Zeigler, who until his transfer to Deputy Commissioner last week had been the department’s highest-ranking black chief. Police sources say that when she learned Wheeler was accessing his own controversial website on a department computer, she informed Kelly. He quietly transferred Wheeler back to Transit.
Kelly was not the only police official protective of Wheeler in the Washington incident. Two high-ranking officers said the shooting appears to be “clean”—that is, justified. The injury to the teen is minor, both point out, and Wheeler’s only transgression was one of dilatory reporting. Efforts to learn the status of the case were unavailing, with Washington police not returning calls from the Voice.
“There was nothing sinister,” said a New York police official, describing Wheeler as “a victim of circumstance who might have panicked.” Panicked over what? The official said that Wheeler told him that he believed he was not permitted to carry his weapon in Washington, D.C. But according to D.C. police spokesman Junis Fletcher, the post–9-11 national law H.R. 218 allows off-duty police officers to carry their weapons in any state and the District of Columbia.
That law was prompted in part by the courageous actions of John Perry, a black NYPD officer. In testimony before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on June 15, 2004, Chuck Canterbury, the president of the 318,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, noted that Perry filed his retirement papers on the morning of September 11. He then rushed out after the attack on the World Trade Center to help rescue people in the north tower. He was the only off-duty NYPD officer to perish that day at ground zero.
Leonard Levitt covers the NYPD on his website nypdconfidential.com.