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PBA: Bratton Award No Slap at Kelly

August 17, 2009

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association spokesman Al O’Leary swore up and down last week, as well as forward, backward and sideways, that the PBA’s plan next month to name former police commissioner Bill Bratton its Man of the Year signaled no disrespect to Bratton’s longtime rival, current police commissioner Ray Kelly.

The union, O’Leary explained, merely wanted to thank Bratton for supporting pay raises for police officers in testimony he gave before arbitration panels in 2002 and 2007 while Los Angeles police chief.

“The primary reason that Bratton was honored,” said O’Leary, “is in recognition that he stood up and spoke and made a difference in testifying on our behalf. He [Kelly] wasn’t in the position Bratton was as he was working for the mayor.”

Actually, Kelly has also supported cops’ raises, most recently criticizing the short-lived $25,000 starting salary for rookies as obviously inadequate.

So while Bratton’s support of pay raises may be real, it hardly seems the sole reason that the union is honoring him. As anyone familiar with police knows, symbolism plays an important role.

Bratton’s award reflects not just the union’s appreciation but its disdain for Kelly over a number of bread-and-butter issues across his seven-year tenure — perhaps most prominently, his knee-jerk repudiation of a white cop who mistakenly shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in 2004.

So angry was the PBA that a month after the shooting the union took the rare step of issuing Kelly a vote of no confidence, with president Patrick Lynch publicly calling for his resignation.

Those actions resulted from the fatal police shooting of Timothy Stansbury, an unarmed black teenager, on the rooftop of his Brooklyn apartment by housing cop Richard Neri.

Neri had been patrolling the rooftop of the Louis Armstrong houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a cold January night when 19-year-old Stansbury pushed open the interior door to the roof at the same time that Neri’s partner was pulling it open from the outside.

While on patrol, Neri had his gun drawn, as police regulations permit. Startled that Stansbury had suddenly emerged in the darkness, Neri fired a shot. His bullet struck Stansbury in the chest, killing him.

Less than 12 hours after the shooting, before the department had completed its investigation, Kelly announced at a news conference, “There appears to be no justification for the shooting.”

The media praised Kelly’s so-called candor. The Times editorialized that his announcement was “consistent with how previous police missteps have been handled in Michael Bloomberg’s administration — with an openness that was absent when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor.”

Law enforcement officials throughout the city, however, were aghast.

Kelly’s “no justification” phrase, they maintained, had been a calculated remark, a legal term, tantamount to finding Neri guilty. “You can visit the parents and attend the funeral,” said a former NYPD deputy commissioner. “But you cannot comment if you know the case is going to the grand jury. A remark like that could influence the district attorney and even the grand jurors.”

Another former top NYPD official said, “While I understand what [Kelly] was saying, and in a certain context he is correct, the starkness of the phrase doesn’t take into consideration the possibility of an accidental shooting, which it probably was.”

The official’s opinion was vindicated when a Brooklyn grand jury ruled the shooting accidental and declined to indict Neri.

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A month after the shooting, the union gave Kelly the no-confidence vote and Lynch called for his resignation, saying, “Commissioner Kelly gave a message to the 23,000 New York City police officers that said basically this: Take all the risks of doing your job, go up on all those roofs, patrol all those subway platforms, walk the streets day and night, take the risks to yourself, take the risks to your family, but then, when the worst happens, when there’s a tragedy, that you will not have the backing of the New York police commissioner.”

As a further reflection of the union’s anger, Neri was subsequently elected a PBA delegate.

Later that year, the union tangled with Kelly again: this time over claims that department higher-ups were suppressing civilian complaints about crime, downgrading them from felonies to less serious misdemeanors so that crime would appear to be lower than it actually was.

At a news conference, Lynch and sergeants’ union head Ed Mullins declared the problem to be systemic. “It is a truth that is widely known by members of the department,” said Lynch.

Kelly’s spokesman Paul Browne dismissed the charges as “inventions” and declared it was “baffling that a police union would assert that its own members are failing to suppress crime as effectively as we know they are.” He convinced the city’s newspapers that the unions’ charges stemmed from a dispute between the department and the PBA over the forced transfer of a Bronx delegate.

No one bothered to ask why if that were the case, the sergeant’s union had seconded the allegations.

When Mark Pomerantz, the chairman of the Mayor’s Commission to Investigation Police Corruption, sought to investigate the unions’ charges, Kelly refused to cooperate.

Testifying before the City Council two years later, Pomerantz explained Kelly’s refusal to cooperate by saying Kelly had decided that the alleged crime-doctoring was an “administrative,” not a “criminal” matter. When Mayor Bloomberg remained silent, Pomerantz resigned.

“This was a mayoral commission,” Pomerantz later explained. “When he [Bloomberg] refused to intervene, there was no point in remaining.”

Earlier this month, the Daily News, seemingly supporting the contention that city crime was under-reported, wrote that it was virtually impossible to get through to many police precincts to file a complaint.

At the 66th precinct in Brooklyn, for example, the News reported that the phone rang 52 times on one call before going to a busy signal. During another call, the News reported, the phone rang 16 times before a cop answered —“and promptly hung up.”

Yesterday O’Leary, who had served as Bratton’s spokesman when he headed the transit police in the early 1990s, swore again that honoring Bratton with the union’s Man of the Year award “was not at all intended to be a slap at Ray Kelly.”

“Kelly has spoken at PBA conventions in the past,” O’Leary added. “He has been a guest speaker and we have tremendous respect for him. ”

What O’Leary did not say was that speaking at PBA conventions is different from being awarded its Man of the Year, and that when Kelly did speak, he was booed by a group of union delegates, seated at the table of a union trustee.

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