Spinning the NYPD

browne01big Spinning the NYPDAccording to friends, current and former colleagues, reporters who like him and those who don’t, the deputy commissioner of public information of the New York City Police Department is “a straight shooter,” “a kid from the Bronx,” “a fierce protector of Ray Kelly,” “a liar,” “a Catholic,” “one of the good guys,” “a bad guy,” “a professor and a priest,” “an upstanding citizen,” “just the messenger,” “a grudge-bearer,” “the minister of misinformation,” “a saint” and “Kelly’s aide-de-camp,” who is “extremely intelligent” and may or may not have “drank the Kool-Aid,” which, when served at One Police Plaza, can be “quite delicious.”

Paul Browne, who first joined the police department in 1990, is a former newspaper reporter who has become, in addition to employee, a loyal friend and an adviser to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. If you compare their resumes side by side, you will find that for most of the past two decades, wherever Mr. Kelly has gone, Mr. Browne has sat in the seat right behind him, if not next to him.

When Mayor David Dinkins appointed Mr. Kelly to his first term as police commissioner in 1992, Mr. Browne came on as his assistant commissioner; when President Bill Clinton asked Mr. Kelly to organize a police force in Haiti two years later, he brought Mr. Browne as his deputy; when six months after that, Mr. Clinton arrived in Haiti and fetched Mr. Kelly in Air Force One, Mr. Browne rode, too (“I remember asking Commissioner Kelly, I said, ‘I wonder how long a flight this is.’ He said, ‘Who cares?’” Mr. Browne recently said during a radio program in Albany); when Mr. Clinton asked Mr. Kelly to serve as the undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S. Treasury, he named Mr. Browne his chief of staff; when Mr. Kelly became commissioner of U.S. Customs, Mr. Browne followed; and when, one year later, Mr. Kelly, after a brief time spent at Bear Stearns, where Mr. Browne did not follow him, was named police commissioner again by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Mr. Browne became his deputy commissioner for administration, and two years later, his press secretary.

VIEW SLIDESHOW > KELLY AND BROWNE: THE EARLY YEARS

If the commissioner has lowered crime rates and reorganized the department to tackle terror threats, it is Mr. Browne who guides the narrative of the city to reflect that. Making sure that after reading the morning papers, New Yorkers know only what they need to: that they can drop their children at school, take the subway and enter large office buildings, thinking about sharpened pencils and lunches and MetroCard fares–and not their safety.

Before Mr. Kelly officially took office, he met with Mr. Browne to outline what he essentially wanted his legacy as police commissioner to be, and, therefore, his press strategy. On a dry-erase board, Mr. Kelly sketched out the three C’s: community policing, conventional crime-fighting and counterterrorism. Almost a decade later, it can be argued that Mr. Kelly’s successes in all three have positioned him for a number of possibilities–future mayor? A move to D.C.? Director of the F.B.I.?–with Mr. Browne having not just helped carefully assemble the image of a man sensitive to criticism, but, judging from their history, having also been an asset that Mr. Kelly would take with him.

An especially memorable story that declared the commissioner’s ambitions in counterterrorism early on was a 2005 New Yorker article in which Mr. Kelly came off looking like the terror whiz–dispatching his detectives to London, Paris, Amman, Tel Aviv, Madrid, Singapore and elsewhere to gather intel–and the F.B.I., then believed to have failed New York, the drooling toddler he happened to enjoy taunting. Part of what made the story so compelling was the remarkable access granted to the writer, William Finnegan, by Mr. Browne. (As a reporter, Mr. Browne worked with Mr. Finnegan’s brother at a paper in Watertown, N.Y.)

“Paul is the most senior aide to the most powerful police commissioner in the history of the Police Department,” said a police reporter that has been covering the department for more than a decade. “For Kelly to last so long in such a highly political position [is due to] law enforcement, but it’s also incredible. No small part to that is Browne. He has protected him and helped nurture his career.” 

“Paul has a terrific understanding of the role of the media,” said Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy at New York University. “After any major terror-related incident, it is Paul Browne who makes sure that Ray Kelly and the NYPD are not overshadowed by federal government officials.”

A city official who regularly deals with the Police Department said, “As deputy he’s probably more powerful than many commissioners. His counsel bleeds beyond press. Sometimes you can tell when it’s the commissioner talking and when Paul is speaking through the commissioner.” Another source said, “If they disagree, it’s done in private.”