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The Demise of the Shack

August 3, 2009

More than symbolism is involved in last week’s transfer — on Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s order — of reporters from the second-floor warren inside Police Plaza, known as The Shack.

Although reporters will remain just down the hall in another office, the move reflects a further weakening of their adversarial role vis-à-vis the department

In New York City, police reporting, epitomized by the term “The Shack,” has a long and fabled history, dating to the turn of the 20th century when Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner and Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis were muckraking.

Then, reporters worked across from the old headquarters on Mulberry Street from apartments, known as shacks. After headquarters was moved a few blocks to Center Street, their apartments were combined into a building across the street from the new headquarters, called “the Shack.”

More than 100 years later, the name endures. Until last week, reporters inside One Police Plaza, have, since the early 1970s when the building opened, been based in that second-floor warren of tiny, smelly, dirt-encrusted rooms that insiders refer to as the Shack.

More than 100 years ago, a dozen daily newspapers thrived in New York City and their best reporters did not let the police intimidate them. Their attitude kept the top brass relatively honest and accountable to the public.

Consider Steffens’ introduction to the notorious Inspector Alexander “Clubber” Williams, so called for beating both prisoners and reporters. Introduced to Steffens, Williams airily announced, “We’ll see how long he stays here.” To which Steffens responded, “I shall stay here till you are driven out.”

Hearing of his encounter with the Clubber, Riis, who became Steffen’s mentor, said to him, “That’s the way to handle them. They are afraid of me, not I of them, and so with you. You have started off on top. Stay there.”

Today, with the newspaper industry in free fall, the dynamic between the police and the media has altered 180 degrees. Only three daily newspapers remain. The weekly Village Voice, which kept a close watch on the department, remains but has been neutered. Newsday, which in the 1990s was boycotted by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association for its hard-hitting coverage, is no longer a newspaper worthy of the name.

Kelly, meanwhile, has been clever in cozying up to top-level newspaper people. Take the Daily News’ owner Mortimer Zuckerman, who a few years ago was given the courtesy of a private investigation by Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence Division David Cohen because Zuckerman believed terrorists were tailing him on account of his support for Israel.

Cohen became so excited over the Zuckerman investigation that he called an Intel commander cowardly for cutting off a pursuit when the so-called terrorists crossed into New Jersey, where the NYPD has no legal jurisdiction.

It turned out that the men following Zuckerman were retired detectives — one was a retired Intel detective — working for private interests: perhaps for Zuckerman’s wife, who was seeking a divorce, or for a business-related matter. Whatever they were doing, they were not terrorists.

Kelly has so little regard for police reporters that he wanted them out of sight and out of mind. He tried to evict them from the building, saying the department needed their space. But, in what was perhaps a last gasp of media backbone, the reporters created such a ruckus that Mayor Bloomberg stepped in and uncharacteristically overruled Kelly, telling him to find them another place inside the building.

Last week, reporters from the Times, the News, the AP and the remains of Newsday moved across the hall into the chaplains’ quarters, where the linoleum floor was squeaky clean and the walls and ceilings spotless.

Only the die-hards at the Post, which boasts the most experienced police reporters in town, remained in their old offices last Thursday.

“It’s like the Alamo here,” said Bureau Chief Murray Weiss.

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“We’re like Sam Houston, Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie,” said his sidekick, Phil Messing.

“They’ll need an FBI SWAT team to get us out of here,” Weiss added.

Were these guys serious or waiting for the inevitable?

Said Weiss: “Even Davey Crockett should know when it’s time to go. They won’t have to storm the door.”

That rumored talk about the departure of First Deputy George Grasso sounds like the real deal. Sources say that Grasso is being considered for a Criminal Court Judgeship in Queens.

It all makes sense. The mayor appoints Criminal Court judges. Grasso is an attorney, having served as Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters under former commissioner Howard Safir. He has been lockstep loyal to the department — that is, he does whatever his bosses tell him. He also lives in Queens.

How he makes up his $180,000-plus salary — because criminal court justices make far less than that — remains to be seen. The only way he can is by collecting his police department pension while serving on the court. That is called double-dipping, and requires a waiver asserting that no one else can do his job.

With all respect to Grasso, that hardly seems the case, especially for a low-level court position.

Here’s a brief summary of what we’ve learned from the Beer Summit and L’Affaire Henry Louis Gates, the black Harvard professor arrested at his home for disorderly conduct.

Lesson one: Don’t equate education with common sense. Even the dumbest white guy knows that mouthing off nonstop to a cop, whether you are black or white, wrong or right, is a sure way to get arrested.

Lesson two: President Obama may well have been correct in saying the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” for arresting Gates. But his uncharacteristic shooting from the hip led him to use a loaded word, which proved costly.

During the campaign, he did a similar thing. He referred to people in depressed areas of the Midwest as “bitter” over the loss of jobs that weren’t coming back and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, jumped all over him, claiming he was an “elitist” and “out of touch.” Just think: instead of bitter, what if Obama had used the word “angry?” There would have been no controversy.

Similarly, instead of using the word “stupidly” to characterize the Cambridge police, would there have been controversy had Obama used the word “hastily?”

As for Sgt. Crowley, he should have walked away. He appears to have acted not out of stupidity in arresting Gates but out of frustration and anger after listening to Gates’ racial ranting at him.

As a former top NYPD official, highly regarded by black officers, put it, “This kind of thing has happened to me countless times. A person starts ranting about something, accusing you of racism, whatever. It gets me so angry, I’m feeling so frustrated because none of it is true, but nonetheless, you just have to walk away. You just have to eat it.”

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