In 2009, I got hired to my first newspaper reporting job at the Queens Tribune. Part of my job included putting together the weekly police blotter. It was a fairly easy task. You just gather all the email releases from the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, or DCPI, the New York City Police Department’s press office, related to incidents in Queens – they would send them typically by precinct – and format them for the paper.
“On Tuesday, September 1 at such and such time, police responded to a call of a man shot at 123 Main Street. Upon arrival they found the victim dead at the scene with gunshot wounds to his torso. An investigation is ongoing.”
It didn’t require any follow up, and if the story was considered big enough, it jumped from the Blotter to a regular news story, but most of the time, it was just in the blotter. There was no need to fact check anything. Why? Were the cops going to lie about these things?
Then came the story of a teenager who ran in front of a police car, was hit and died.
I coped, pasted, formatted and sent it on its way to production. Seemed pretty cut and paste. The kid was caught trying to break into a home, he was chased, cops tried to box him in and he jumped out in front of the car, causing them to hit him accidentally and he died. Tragic accident. Right?
A few weeks later, I received a phone call from a lawyer. He was working with the mother of the kid who had died and believed that despite what the cops said, her son’s death was no accident.
They had two witnesses, one who was on the street and one who watched from an apartment window, who both claimed the same thing. The cops had stopped the kid, who was sitting on the front stoop of the building waiting for a friend, because someone had called them to report the teenager had been “breaking into the building.” (He wasn’t). The witnesses both agreed that the kid, after explaining that he was waiting for a friend and refusing to submit to an arrest, walked away from cops, who rushed back to their car and rode down the street as he walked away. The kid got annoyed and decided the cross the street, at which time the cops turned the patrol car around and rammed the kid, causing him to fly over the windshield and then roll back onto the ground. The cops got out of the car, and stood by the kid for over 10 minutes before calling for help. An ambulance came 30 minutes later.
There having been no video or no more eye witnesses, I did the best I could to investigate what happened. I tried to get 911 tapes or transcripts and succeeded in discovering the ambulance call came at 1:55 a.m., which is at least 20 minutes earlier than both witnesses claimed, though the witnesses claimed the incident happened much earlier than the 1:35 a.m. time DCPI sent out. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death blunt trauma from being hit by the car, which hinted that the police car was going quite fast, not what you’d expect if they were slowly making a U-turn to pursue him. I followed the story for months, carrying it over to a new paper that I got hired at, until I was called into a meeting with my publisher. I was told to drop the story:
- Our paper didn’t distribute in the area, so it was pointless to waste so much time on the story
- We needed to stay in good standing with the NYPD, as they control our press badges and can make access a bitch
- There was really no evidence the cops did anything wrong except circumstantial witness accounts that couldn’t be corroborated.
I even got a call directly from the commanding officer of the precinct. He asked: “please don’t pursue this any further. The situation has been dealt with. It was an accident, but the cops involved have been dealt with. We’re really trying hard to repair relations with the community, they’re strained, we know. This can’t help.”
Before long the lawyer stop taking my calls, one witness was arrested for drug possession and the other moved out of state. The mother of the victim also relocated to Georgia. The story died. Years later, I heard from a local source that the mother received a payout from the city as one of the many settlements that totaled over $1 billion.
In the wake of what happened with Philando Castile and George Floyd and all the other black men and women who were killed by cops on camera, I often wondered what really happened back in 2010 and had someone had a smartphone camera at the time and filmed it, would it have ended differently?
After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis Police sent out a press release stating that he had died after having a “medical condition” during an arrest and cops called for help. No mention of the knee; instead it presented the cops are doing the right thing in seeking help. If not for the amateur videos, its entirely probable Minneapolis reporters would have just ran with the police account and not asked any further questions and Derek Chauvin would still be out patrolling with a badge and gun.
It was never our policy to question information we get from the police. Their word was treated as the gold standard. It’s obvious now that isn’t and hasn’t be true.
Further, our relationship with the police was a really toxic one. We often were pressured to bury unflattering stories about cops, with a mix of intimidation tactics and payoffs danged in front of us like sticks and carrots.
Whether it was the story about cops in Flushing taking bribes from “massage parlors;” or police arresting the wrong suspect TWICE while the real suspect, a cop’s brother, fled to Poland; or a police officer who grabbed a woman’s breasts; one who harassed a homeless man with his gun, threatening to shoot him and laughing about it or another who joked about sodomizing gay men at a protest if they get too close to him, we buried it. We trusted the department would deal with the problems internally and felt it was important to not use our voice to chip away at public trust of law enforcement over “minor issues” that are best handled out of the public eye. It was necessary, we were told, to have a police department with strong public support in order to keep crime low and maintain the successes in crime reduction we had seen.
And we did it. Partially out of necessity – we needed to keep our jobs – but also because we believed it. We believed that a functioning police department that had the trust of the people was necessary to keep law and order.
I was even told to spike a POSITIVE story about a cop – an officer who instead of arresting a homeless man who was panhandling on a Queens street, he helped him find a job. “What we don’t want is every homeless person in the city flooding the precincts looking for handouts,” my DCPI contact said.
In December 2013, after Bill de Blasio won his mayoral election, I was assigned to write an article about “stop and frisk,” which I had been writing about much the previous year. And earlier article of mine from the previous October, linked here, was focused on the Community Safety Act, which sought to restrict the use of stop and frisk and provide more transparency in its usage. The gist of the new article was to get the “police side of the story” and I was to sit down with then-outgoing City Councilman Peter Vallone of Astoria, a staunch supporter of “Stop and Frisk.” In an editorial meeting, the publisher and the editor both agreed “we have to do something to stop [de Blasio] from curtailing police powers,” and figure the best way to do it was to run a story favorable to the policy and critical of reform. We even coordinated the story with DCPI.
Feeling uncomfortable, I asked to be taken off the story. I said I had included this perspective in my earlier article and there was no need to do it again and an editorial would suffice. The response I got from my editor – “The last article didn’t work. He won.” The assignment was instead given to an intern. I’d like to say this is an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. I was once told to promote Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson on the cover of the pre-primary edition in September 2013 to try to try to prevent a de Blasio victory. It didn’t work. Repeatedly, we were pushed to blow up crime stories, especially in black and brown neighborhoods, out of proportion to spin a pro-police agenda. They would supplement an editorial calling for more cops or more money for law enforcement. It happened several times during my time as a reporter, especially during budget negotiation season in May and June.
The NYPD also gives us our press badges, which we need to cross police lines at murder scenes or fires or protests or even mayoral press conferences. They have a strict requirement to get one. You have to go down in person to 1 Police Plaza, and go through levels of security that make Tel Aviv Airport look like a state fair. You have to present three clips of “a city sponsored event” that you covered (of course you can’t actually cover them until you get the badge, but I digress) and they have to approve them. The first time I tried to get a press badge, I was declined because one of my clips was not acceptable to them as a “city sponsored event.” (It was a press conference held by a City Councilman). Another one of my clips, a fire at a Maspeth, Queens bar where the owner let me behind police lines, was accepted, but I was scolded and threatened by the woman at DCPI for going behind police lines without a badge. “If we catch you doing that again, you could be subject to arrest.”
The NYPD used tactics of intimidation, but also flattery, to keep the press from straying from them. I had a great working relationship with the commanding officer of one of the local precincts. He would invite me to the precinct house for coffee, give me (off the record) updates on what was going on in the community. It was helpful and I got a lot of scoops from him, but it came at a cost. When his officers arrested the wrong man for a sex crime, I was asked to bury it. When a teenage girl filed a complaint against an officer at the precinct, accusing him of sexual harassment, I was asked to bury it. And because I did, I got access most reporters would only dream of. A sit down with the borough commander; an escort behind police lines at a crime scene; scoops on arrests and investigations.
And we all knew that if we didn’t play their game, someone else would. If we didn’t get the scoop, I was told once, the cops “have a [New York] Post reporter on speed dial who will get it.” We were all chasing Murdoch. And we did this, even though cops would still openly say “the media is against us.” That’s how they kept it going, by gaslighting us into thinking we STILL weren’t friendly enough to them. We needed to do more of their bidding, and more, and more.
But now, with all that has transpired, I’m left wondering; how many people suffered under the weight of brutal cops who knew the media was “taken care of,” and felt lawless with no accountability? Did any George Floyds go unnoticed because I was led to believe there was no reason to question what DCPI sent to us? Did I really do my job as a journalist? Does any NYC reporter if they don’t vet the police the same way they question politicians or other sources?
The fear, the intimidation and the access have allowed the NYPD to escape scrutiny for years. and now its all come to a head. They’ve lost the trust of the city, and so has the media who did their bidding. We may all end up the worse for it.