According 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.
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.”
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.
THE REPORTERS AND bureau chiefs who spend their days at One Police Plaza are confined to a room called “the shack”: a crammed, odorous space on the second floor to which Mr. Browne sometimes descends to brief them on major crimes. On a regular morning, they come up to the 13th floor to fish for stories or get details on the ones that break overnight. It was on one of these occasions that the incident involving the Daily News reporter occurred.
“Wil is like the teddy bear of cop reporters,” said a police reporter who has been covering the department for over a decade. “All he was doing was asking follow-up questions. It just seems like that office is completely unaccountable. I think it’s now just Kelly’s public-relations arm. … Browne’s job is to protect Kelly. It’s not to provide public information.”
According to Mr. Browne, being a former newspaperman allows him to understand the needs of reporters. According to Mr. Browne, his relationship with reporters is “good.” According to reporters, their relationship with Mr. Browne is contentious.
“He would feed stories to one reporter and not another when he was mad at you,” said a former shack reporter about Mr. Browne. “And he would not call back if he was mad at a reporter.”
About two years ago, a meeting was called between Mr. Browne and the bureau chiefs to improve the relationship. “We felt there was a general disdain among the rank and file up there for us,” said a current shack reporter. “I don’t need a hug and a glass of milk and cookies when I go up there, but there is a lack of respect, which I don’t even mind as long as I get what I need.”
“Wow. You think I can control it?” Mr. Browne said responding to whether he attempts to manage the department’s image. “Absolutely not. A reporter starts the day with a blank sheet. The notion that I control that would be great, but it’s just not the case. … I don’t think the department needs protection. It does tremendous work.”
That DCPI purposefully withholds information is not true, according to Mr. Browne, but he acknowledged that the constant competition among shack reporters and the shorter deadlines created by infinite Web posting have affected things. “Undoubtedly there are times when we don’t provide information as quickly as some would want, and that has led to occasional conflicts. But on the other hand, the office responds to reporters’ inquiries 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
“He’s not there to be Mr. Warmth,” said Mr. Moss, an unofficial adviser to the mayor. “I’m glad the reporters don’t like him. The crime reporters’ job is to complain. If they were happy, he wouldn’t be doing his job.”
Outside the shack, veteran police reporters say they have been cut off from their sources inside the department after Mr. Browne and the commissioner learned that certain detectives were speaking to them. “You can’t seal off a large organization as this,” said Mr. Browne. “In theory, all press contacts come from me, but in reality beat reporters develop their own sources. The only time it’s a concern for me is when it jeopardizes an ongoing investigation.” Reporters insist the information they were getting from their sources would not have threatened open cases.
John Eterno, associate dean of graduate studies in criminal justice at Molloy College and a retired police captain, said that as a sergeant, he was encouraged to speak to the press, but by the time he left, in 2003, that had changed. “As the chief spokesperson, Paul hasn’t been as transparent as we would have hoped,” said Mr. Eterno. “Particularly in a democracy, when we’re trying to show other countries how to run their police departments in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The speculations about why the department has become harder to penetrate are many. Some reporters believe it has something to do with the interviews the commissioner gave early in his term that reflected poorly on the F.B.I.’s counterterrorism efforts.
Here is how one veteran crime reporter told it: “He was happy to take them on, but it created problems for the department. The F.B.I. got increasingly combative with NYPD, and Ray would say things like, ‘You fuckers don’t ever share things with us.’ Which is true. The F.B.I. didn’t want to share. And the JTTF”–Joint Terrorism Task Force–”was essentially an F.B.I. operation. But when Kelly said you don’t share with us, they said, ‘Well yeah, because every time we tell you something, it’s in the fucking paper. You guys leak like sieves.’ And Ray couldn’t say anything to that because they were right, so it was embarrassing to him because he couldn’t control his own cops. The older Ray got, the more his political ambitions came to the fore, and the more he demanded that Paul stop the leaks. The more that happened, the more Paul was willing to take unusual measures. That was the beginning of this deep divide and distrust between DCPI and the press corps.”
That is one theory. Others believe it all began with the murder of Imette St. Guillen at The Falls bar on Lafayette Street by Darryl Littlejohn in 2006. According to sources, certain veteran reporters were getting regular updates from detectives working the case; meanwhile, Mr. Littlejohn had not yet been arrested. When an arrest was finally made, police arrived to discover reporters already on the scene.
“Kelly went completely ballistic. Browne went proactive and dumped”–i.e., traced–”phones, which I believe is routine now,” said a police captain who retired from the force two years ago and used to speak to reporters. “That was the beginning of the end for the relationships between reporters and detectives.” The former captain said he believed some officers were threatened with being transferred. “If you live in Long Island, they’ll put you in Staten Island,” said the former captain. “For detectives, one of the worst things that can happen is you get transferred to a borough where you have to pay a toll to get there. They’re so frightened now it’s like the Kremlin.” According to sources, there are three experienced reporters known to communicate with detectives through disposable phones, or so-called “source-phones.”
The veteran reporter said, “They basically say, ‘Your NYPD-issued cell phone received four calls from this reporter two days before the publication of this article, and you called this reporter five different times. So now we’re going to transfer you out of this job that you like so much to some shit job somewhere.’”
According to other sources, if the department suspects officers of talking to reporters, they may order what is called a GO-15 (General Order 15)–an interview during which officers must tell the truth or they face termination of employment.
“I know of no instance in which a member of the service was transferred because of talking to reporters,” said Mr. Browne. “I certainly never recommended such a transfer, and to my knowledge, none has occurred. However, the department has the obligation to prevent a member of the service from jeopardizing an ongoing investigation and that may include checking police phone records when appropriate.”
“Yes, when information came from detectives, the consequences were harsh for those detectives,” said someone who used to work for the Kelly administration. “But I think Ray would make no apologies for that. If you are leaking sensitive information to the press and you are a detective, what are you thinking?”
The latest trouble for Mr. Browne has been the Adrian Schoolcraft case, the story of an officer who made secret recordings at Brooklyn’s 81st Precinct that point to corruption. Mr. Schoolcraft has filed a $50 million lawsuit against the NYPD for, as he alleges, retaliating against him by confining him against his will to Jamaica Hospital Center’s psychiatric ward. According to a recent report in The Village Voice, the lawsuit alleges that Mr. Browne was on the scene when Mr. Schoolcraft was taken away.
“Cops generally don’t do anything without being told or without approval from above,” said a police reporter. “So if he was in the street that night, it suggests Kelly knew what was going on.” According to Mr. Browne, the story is a complete fabrication.
WHEN THE OBSERVER asked Mr. Browne what was the biggest difference between being a reporter and being a press secretary, he said that he now understands something he didn’t as a reporter: “I think I was guilty of viewing people in two-dimensional terms. They’re not sitting around trying to figure out how not to give you information. They’re flesh-and-blood human beings. There were some reporters who got that someone like Pat Moynihan is a human being–he’s worried about his family, it’s not all about his public position and who he is in the media.”
Commissioner Kelly recently turned 69. If he were to make a political leap, sources say, it would have to be soon, and in part, Mr. Browne’s future depends on it.
“There are rumors that he was being considered for the F.B.I. because [Director Robert] Mueller was going to step down,” said the veteran crime reporter who spoke with The Observer. “And there are rumors he would go to Washington because Obama really likes Kelly. But he’s older. There is talk that his wife doesn’t want to move. The idea that he would become a political player is interesting but is becoming less of a possibility. Browne probably thinks constantly about what is Ray Kelly’s political future. If he becomes mayor, if he moves to Washington, what would happen to Browne? If Kelly retired, what would happen to Browne?”
“They have now worked together for so long that they are truly a team,” said Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Browne’s friend and former colleague. “It’s been that way for a while, and it’s like a Warner Brothers old movie. They’re the cast, whether it’s a pirate movie or a cowboy movie, they’re the cast.”
Asked whether they would move on as a pair, Mr. Browne, who happens to enjoy pictures from the ’30s and ’40s, said, “He and his spouse are a pair.”
A couple of weeks ago, Commissioner Kelly was due to give a speech at the New York City Police Museum downtown at an exhibition of drawings depicting responders to 9/11, to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the tragedy. Mr. Browne, wearing a red tie under a black suit, arrived before the commissioner and was shifting around the Roosevelt room on the second floor. Mr. Browne has a forward-leaning gait that makes his movements deliberate and a bit anxious–waiting around looks awkward on him.
“You here for the boss?” asked a man popping a cheese cube into his mouth.
“Yup,” replied Mr. Browne.
When Mr. Kelly arrived, he joined Mr. Browne in conversation with two other official-looking gentlemen. Standing side by side, Mr. Kelly is about half the size of Mr. Brown.
A female photographer approached the four men and lifted her camera. Mr. Browne immediately stepped out of the frame. “No, no, you too,” the woman seemed to signal with her enthusiastic smiling and gesturing. Mr. Browne resisted. But then Mr. Kelly, whose face had already spread into a friendly, doughy smile for the camera, signaled him in. Mr. Browne, whose smile is less practiced, with an awkward showing of teeth, finally submitted and stepped into the frame.
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