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?'”