THERE ARE MANY stories told about Mr. Browne within the Police Department, and, sometimes, mistold in the telling. That Mr. Browne pulled over a drunk driver on the Taconic State Parkway sometime last year–as a senior-level official, Mr. Browne is not authorized to make arrests–is not exactly correct. In actuality, he was driving to his home upstate when a drunk driver crashed into the median and Mr. Browne stopped to make sure he was all right. And though he stayed until the State Police arrived, it was the latter that made the arrest of the driver, who turned out to be an off-duty police officer.
That while stationed in Haiti, Mr. Browne and Mr. Kelly personally policed the streets is not entirely wrong. On their way to a daily meeting at the American embassy, they once witnessed a guy get chased to the top of a truck and surrounded by about 50 people armed with machetes. Mr. Browne and the commissioner climbed up and got him down safely. They were late to their meetings often.
It is also accurate that Mr. Browne had initially suggested the name “Tsunami” for teams of officers dispatched to high-crime zones, which he explained to Mr. Kelly would put forth the notion of “flooding the zone”–this was of course before the actual tsunami hit–which the commissioner promptly rejected. Also true: That Mr. Browne drove a cab in college; that he likes country music, Willie Nelson and bluegrass; and that before the actual contents of a news story about the department might irritate him, it is the improper usage of grammar, knocked into him by the nuns at Our Lady of Refuge, his Bronx elementary school, that really gets him going.
The stories told about Mr. Browne among reporters who cover the department are not as favorable but equally compelling. For instance, they like to talk about an incident that occurred last year between Daily News reporter Wil Cruz and Sgt. Kevin Hayes at DCPI, the office of public information that Mr. Browne heads. According to reporters, Mr. Cruz was trying to learn the details of a subway stabbing when Sergeant Hayes said something along the lines of “I don’t care what you do. Get the fuck out. I’ll kick your fucking ass.” According to fellow reporters, Mr. Cruz left Mr. Browne messages to complain about the sergeant, but Mr. Browne never got back to him; the matter was allegedly dealt with privately, between Mr. Browne and the Daily News. (Mr. Cruz declined to comment about the incident.)
“He knows how to do his job and he does it well,” said a former One Police Plaza reporter. “But he’s a little bit of a tyrant up there. He keeps the cops upstairs running scared, and the way they treat reporters is a little bit due to the tone he sets. They’re just very dismissive and confrontational.”
There are other stories. Such as that after Mr. Browne and the commissioner began to see details from ongoing investigations in the morning papers, the department made a habit of screening senior detectives’ cell phone records for reporters’ phone numbers, which Mr. Browne has committed to memory. Reporters who lost access to their sources inside the department–when, they say, detectives became increasingly fearful of demotion or transfer–have started using prepaid, untraceable cell phones to communicate with sources.
When asked whether Mr. Browne is good at his job, another crime reporter at a daily paper said, “I guess it depends. If you’re the police commissioner and you can’t stand any negative stories, then I guess he’s good at his job. If you’re the public and you want to know exactly how the Police Department is reacting to crime, then he’s bad at his job.”
The story former Newsday columnist Leonard Levitt likes to tell is how Mr. Browne, whom he described as a former friend, hasn’t spoken to him in seven years, not since Mr. Kelly drove to Newsday in ’03 to speak to Mr. Levitt’s editors about what he saw as unfair coverage of the department in his columns. (Mr. Browne, for the record, says he only stopped speaking to Mr. Levitt after he left Newsday in ’05, which would put it at five years.)
“The New York City police commissioner taking a day off from crime and terrorism to spend an afternoon on the Long Island Expressway to drive 60 miles to complain about a reporter?” Mr. Levitt said by phone. “It’s unprecedented!
“I think Paul is the only person in the Police Department that Kelly really trusts,” he continued. “Certainly in terms of his image, which is very important to Kelly…Paul sees his job as stopping and preventing criticism of the police department.”
PHYSICALLY, MR. BROWNE, 61, tends to blend in at One Police Plaza. He is large and imposing, with red hair that fades to gray and a full beard. He looks like a cop or a security guard, or, if he would just smile sometimes, he might pass for a high-school principal. But his suit is much nicer, his shoes shine and he is the kind of man for whom cuff links make a difference–on the day we met, these were polished, little police commissioner shields, gifted to him by Mr. Kelly.
Mr. Browne, who at $199,946 a year, makes about five thousand less than Mr. Kelly (according to Seethroughny.net) sits in an office, located on the 13th floor of One Police Plaza where about 26 officers take media requests. If a major homicide occurs, the shack reporters get briefed by Mr. Browne personally. On an easel in his office stood a blown-up map of West 45th Street and Seventh Avenue, the corner where the attempted bombing occurred back in May. Seeing as how Mr. Browne has likely had other major briefings since then, it may be that he is the type to keep a Christmas tree up through February, or it may be that he was prepared for our meeting.
He began by explaining that the NYPD is the largest police force in the country. “One of the manifestations of that is that we have a 24-hour press operation, which is pretty unique. In addition to what you see in news media every day, New York, in many people’s minds, is America–maybe not in Americans’ minds but around the world. If there is a terrorist attack anywhere, we get a call about it.”
Every few minutes, Mr. Browne’s phone rings with inquiries from reporters seeking comment. “Excuse me,” Mr. Browne said and lowered his voice for a call. “Yeah, Mike. Good. Yeah. I haven’t looked at it yet. This is on the … Yeah, yeah, O.K. I’ll just say anecdotally that we see–like we did with eight ball jackets and sidekicks, when some new product is introduced–we’ll see a spike in that. How’s that? Yeah, right. Yep. Yeah. Oh, I know. I got an inquiry on that first thing and then he called and said he wasn’t going to use it. Yeah, I know. It’s pathetic. O.K. Thanks. Buh-bye.”
An officer in plain clothes walked in with two cups of coffee that Mr. Browne presumably ordered before The Observer’s arrival. “How do you take your coffee?” Just milk, we said. “O.K., then I’ll take the other one.”
Mr. Browne grew up in a small apartment in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx, one of four children of Irish immigrants. (His brother, now retired, served as a lieutenant detective squad commander in the force.) Mr. Browne attended Mount St. Michael for high school and went on to study American history and literature at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, where he edited the school paper. During summers, he drove a cab in the city, and when one day an older businessman got into the back of his cab and asked what he really wanted to be, Mr. Browne said a “newspaper reporter.”
After college, Mr. Browne was accepted into Columbia Journalism School, which he couldn’t afford. He reapplied and attended one year later after spending a year as a general assignment reporter at the Watertown Daily Times, which had a circulation bigger than the town it was named after. He returned to the paper after Columbia and spent about a decade in Albany covering politics and then a few years as the Albany bureau chief for the Daily News. According to Post columnist Bob McManus, who then worked for the Albany Times Union, Mr. Browne was highly regarded as a reporter. Then, in the mid-’80s, Tom Ryan, an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, told him that Tim Russert was leaving his position as top aide and asked whether he might like to be his replacement. Mr. Browne took the job, and in 1990, he joined the administration of Police Commissioner Lee Brown, whose first deputy, a man named Raymond Kelly, Mr. Browne would grow to admire.
When Mr. Browne does not answer his phone, his assistant Elizabeth will pop in and announce a name in a manner of asking a question. “Sean Gardiner?” (Of The Wall Street Journal.)
“Excuse me,” Mr. Browne said. “Yeah, Sean. Yeah, I’m not going to see Kelly for probably another hour or so and then I’ll let you know. What does it mean? It’s our baby to protect? O.K. O.K. I will. Buh-bye.”
Mr. Browne’s L-shaped desk has framed photos of his wife, Sarah, a librarian in Albany, and his daughter, Lacey, who was once a assistant photo editor at the New York Post and now works at Morgan Stanley. Sarah lives at the upstate home in Columbia County, and Mr. Browne, who spends his weeknights at an apartment on Wall Street, drives up every weekend. When he has a spare moment, he likes to get lost in weighty nonfiction history. The last book he read was The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James. He has read everything by John le Carre, the spy novelist. Mr. Browne likes to watch Law & Order because he finds it to be more accurate than other cop shows. Sometimes, he and Sarah will have brunch plans with friends that they will feel terrible about canceling last minute, and will explain, or try to explain, that the phone rang at 2 a.m. and Mr. Browne had to drive to New York to attend to a police-involved shooting. He will walk through the scene and jot down details that the detectives wouldn’t care about but the reporters will surely ask–that the crime occurred across the street from a liquor store; that the color of the car the suspect hid behind was green–and then he will go to the hospital where he will meet Commissioner Kelly and maybe the mayor, too, and discuss which facts of the investigations are safe to go out with.
Ed Skyler, the former deputy mayor under Mayor Bloomberg, recalled the time when he rang Mr. Browne in the middle of the night about a shooting at his home upstate. Two hours later, he saw him at the hospital. “I said, ‘I thought you were upstate,’ and he said, ‘I was.’”
“He understands what the department is doing and what the reporters want,” added Mr. Skyler. “He tries to serve both masters as best he can, which is the trick in that job. You have two bosses in a sense and they are both demanding.”
“In the two years I had that job, I never had a drink,” said Michael O’Looney, who had Mr. Browne’s job before him. “Things break, you run to scenes, police officers get shot at 2 a.m. You’re never really off-duty.” According to William Cunningham, an old friend and former communication director for the mayor, he and Mr. Browne used to get drinks after work when Mr. Browne was a reporter in Albany and Mr. Cunningham worked for Governor Hugh Carey. “I don’t think he drinks anymore, and I drink a lot less than I used to,” said Mr. Cunningham.
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