Thursday, June 10, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Beat Cop to Top Cop: A Tale of Crime-Fighting In Three Cities By America's Top Cop, John Timoney

John Timoney, the man Esquire magazine called “America’s Top Cop,’ has written a book about his experiences commanding police forces in New York City, Philadelphia and Miami.

The book is called Beat Cop to Top Cop: A Tale of Three Cities (University of Penn Press).

Although Timoney rose from a patrolman to become the youngest four-star chief in the history of the New York Police Department, he was not asked to be the police commissioner. In 1998 Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell asked Timoney to come 90 miles south to become Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner, making him the city’s top cop.

So speaking before an audience of about 100 people on April 11th at the Philadelphia Free Library in Center City, Timoney said it was appropriate that he was kicking off his national book tour in Philadelphia.

I was in the audience that night as Timoney said that unlike many cops who say they always wanted to be a police officer, he didn’t want to be a policeman. He said he didn’t much like cops as a child growing up in Dublin, Ireland or later in Washington Heights, New York City.

“Like parents and teachers, they told you all the things you couldn’t do, and they arbitrarily took stickball bats from you on 175th Street just because Mrs. Randolph was complaining we were hitting her window,” Timoney told the amused audience at the library.

Timoney went on to say that he followed a group of friends who all took the police exam in 1967 and entered the NYPD. While he initially didn’t like being a police officer, he said that after some weeks he began what was up to now a 40-year love affair with the police profession.

Timoney added that he was also fortunate to live through some tumultuous times and he saw the process of much social change over those 40 years.

I first met Timoney outside his office at Philadelphia Police Headquarters - the place old-time cops, crooks and Philly residents called the "Roundhouse" due to its circular structure.

On assignment for Counterterrorism magazine, I was on my way to interview then-First Deputy Commissioner Sylvester Johnson about “Operation Sunrise,” a major Philly police, DEA and FBI counter-drug operation in “the Badlands” of North Philadelphia.

Timoney was talking in the hall to then-Chief Inspector Patricia Giorgio-Fox, the commander of the South Police Division. I knew the South Philly chief inspector, as I wrote a column for a South Philly weekly newspaper at the time.

She said hello and introduced me to Timoney. Although Timoney is critical of the press and he has had some difficulty with the press over the years, he is very smooth and personable with reporters.

I would later see Timoney at South Philly and Center City community meetings, at crime scenes, and at CompStat meetings held at the Philadelphia Police Academy. I also witnessed him dealing with rioting street protesters during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.

Many hard-core protest groups came to the city with the intent to disrupt the convention and to cause general mayhem. Timoney decided not to deploy officers in full riot gear as he believed the look was provocative. Instead, he opted to use the city’s bike cops, who wore their standard bike helmets and rode Raleigh Mountain bikes.

The protesters knew that the city’s convention center in South Philadelphia was heavily protected, so they opted to take their disruptive demonstrations to the Center City restaurants and hotels were the delegates were staying.

On Tuesday night of the week of the convention, nearly 300 protesters were arrested as they overturned trash dumpsters, defaced buildings and police cars and assaulted police officers. Chemicals and urine were also tossed on some of the officers. Timoney was out on the street on a bike and he and another officer scuffled with a group of protesters.

I was there, covering the protests for Counterterorism magazine, and I witnessed how Timoney led the police response to the violence organized by the protesters.

I saw how the police effectively used their bikes to move quickly in and out of crowds. The bikes were also used as barriers when the officers turned them sideways and held them waist-high.

The mountain bikes were also a useful tool to ram, prod and herd the unruly and violent protesters. The bikes were used much like earlier police and military forces used a more deadly tool - bayonets.
I was impressed with Timoney’s leadership of the police that week.

That is not to say that I subscribe to all of Timoney’s views. I disagree with his view on gun control. Timoney believes that strict gun control can control crime. Strict gun control in Chicago has hardly curbed violence, as the government’s ban on drugs has hardly curbed illegal drug sales and use.

Although initially I wanted a commissioner promoted from within the Philadelphia Police Department, as did the police rank-and-file, I came to believe Timoney was a very good police commissioner. I was sorry to see him leave Philadelphia.

“Ecce facies! Behold the face!” author Tom Wolfe wrote in his introduction to Timoney’s book.

“That face, belonging to John Timoney, now chief of the Miami Police Department, has become a legend in its own time.”

“According to the legend, Timoney never had to draw a weapon to arrest a felon and take him in. He just gave him a good look at…that face…and even the most obtuse and poisonous viper became a mewling little pussy… and that face became a legend in its own time.”

Wolfe went on to write that he meet Timoney when he had risen to Inspector, the third highest rank in the NYPD. Four years later, Wolfe writes, Timoney would become, at age forty-five, the youngest four-star chief in the department’s history.

“Even someone in the grandstand, like me, could read the lines incised in that face, punctuated by a blunt nose, and immediately make out the words “tough Irish cop,” Wolfe wrote.

Wolfe, a great journalist and novelist, wrote a fine introduction to Timoney’s book.

In the book Timoney writes of his early days as a patrolman and his steady rise to high rank in the department. The 1970s were a tough time to be a cop and perhaps it was even tougher to be a police supervisor and commander. I especially enjoyed the account of his time as the captain of the Chinatown precinct.

Timoney’s observations and insights into crime fighting and police management are thoughtful and serious, but he also adds a dash of good humor. Serving under Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Timoney and the rest of the command staff instituted radical means of fighting crime, including CompStat and other initiatives that drastically reduced crime in New York.

His account of his time as the Philadelphia Police Commissioner interested me the most. I know some of the people he writes about and I was interested in his impressions of them and of Philadelphia. He writes about quickly identifying the department’s problems and making sweeping personnel and policy changes. He also writes about the cases, issues, events and his missteps of his time here.
Timoney left Philadelphia in early 2002 to take a job in private security, but a year later he was back in uniform as Miami’s Police Chief.

Miami held a new set of issues and problems, including the accusation that his used his position to receive a favorable lease of a Lexus SUV from a local car dealer. Timoney explains the situation and how it was resolved.

When a new mayor was elected in 2009, Timoney resigned as the chief of police. He is now working for a private security firm.

“I have learned more from my mistakes than I have from my successes,” Timoney wrote in the book. “That doesn’t mean mistakes are good. Mistakes are bad, but they do teach.”

Timoney’s book outlines both his successes and mistakes in policing three cities. Timoney has led an interesting life and he has written an interesting book.

Note: You can read my interview with John Timoney in Counterterrorism magazine via the below link:

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