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Beat Cop to Top Cop

From Beat Cop to Top Cop: A Tale of Three Cities documents John Timoney's rise, from his days as a tough street cop in the South Bronx right up to his role as police chief of Miami.

Beat Cop to Top Cop
A Tale of Three Cities

John F. Timoney. Foreword by Tom Wolfe

2010 | 352 pages | Cloth $24.95
Biography / Law
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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Tom Wolfe
Introduction: Be Careful What You Wish For

Chapter 1. Getting the Job
Chapter 2. The South Bronx
Chapter 3. From Sergeant to Management
Chapter 4. Captain Timoney
Chapter 5. Chinatown
Chapter 6. Back to Headquarters Under Dinkins
Chapter 7. The Bratton Era Begins
Chapter 8. CompStat, Crowd Control, and the "Dirty Thirty"
Chapter 9. The Beginning of the End
Chapter 10. Interregnum

Chapter 11. Philadelphia, Here I Come
Chapter 12. Pugnacious Philly

Chapter 13. Paradise Found: Miami
Chapter 14. Free Trade, Free Speech, and the Politics of Policing

Conclusion: Where We Were, Where We Are


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Tom Wolfe

Ecce facies! Behold the face!
That face, belonging to John Timoney, now chief of the Miami Police Department, has become a legend in its own time. In the 1970s, Timoney was a young New York City police officer assigned to street patrol in the South Bronx, the worst skell hole on earth. Everybody else on earth got an eyeful of the Bronx's skell-bent misery in the movie Fort Apache, the Bronx, starring Paul Newman, and the television miniseries The Bronx Is Burning. "Skell" is cop slang for a lowlife with the IQ and humane fellow-feelings of a virus.

All a policeman in the South Bronx had to do was cast his net, anywhere, anywhere at all, and he could haul in a wriggling, writhing, rattler-fanged tangle of toxic felons. Catching them was one thing. Taking them into custody was another. As cop lore had it, in Manhattan you could tell some skell he was under arrest and say, "We can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way—it's up to you," and he would at least know what you were talking about. In the South Bronx you got ready to roll in the dirt from the git-go. Every police officer assigned to street patrol had that problem . . . except for John Timoney. According to the legend, Timoney never once 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. Like most legends, I am sorry to say, this one is not entirely true. At one point Timoney was reduced to drawing his gun and engaging in a shootout before managing to bring in two drug dealers who had just fulfilled the dream of a lifetime in their line of work, found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, laid hands on enough treasure to retire in posh style and cover themselves with honor by collecting Pre-Raphaelite paintings, if they wanted to, and donating them amid posh pomp to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: namely, one hundred pounds of pure, uncut heroin.

By the time I ran into Timoney ten years later, he had risen to inspector, the third highest rank in the New York Police Department. Another four years, and he 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." Timoney was the platonic ideal-typical incarnation of the breed. He was the real real thing, born in Dublin to working-class parents who, when their boy Sean—as they called him then—was thirteen, emigrated to New York with him and his younger brother, Ciaran. The boys grew up street-wise, as they say, or at least wise in the ways of the Studs Lonigan-style streets of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in far northern Manhattan right across the Harlem River from the South Bronx. Both boys joined the police force. Among sturdy Irish lads, it was as natural as breathing.

I remember asking Inspector Timoney if the NYPD still recruited Irish policemen. "Yeah," he said, "we recruit them, but now they all come from the suburbs . . . and to tell the truth, a lot of them are cream puffs. These days if you want a real Irish cop, you hire a Puerto Rican."

By now, Timoney had turned into a fitness fiend. He had begun running at least five miles a day, and that led to fifteen marathons and so many half marathons, more than two dozen, he and everybody else lost count. After he resigned as deputy police commissioner in New York in 1996 and became Philadelphia's police commissioner in 1998, the fiendish fitness obsession did wonders for the legend—just like that. A week after being sworn in as Philadelphia's top cop, amid heavy press coverage, Timoney happened to be on his daily run and had just reached the city's toniest downtown residential area, Rittenhouse Square, when an excited citizen cried out, "Hey! I know you! Aren't you the new guy—the new police commissioner?" Timoney stopped, smiled, and went over to shake hands. But the excited citizen didn't have time for that. He pointed across the street and said, "You see that guy there? He just stole that lady's purse!"

The new commissioner, forty-nine years old but a fiend afoot, exploded into a hundred-meter dash, ran the skell down, overpowered him, showed him that face, and hauled him in.

Now we're talking about . . . press! One week on the job! Fights crime . . . Himself! Philadelphia's love affair with John Timoney began at that moment and never cooled in the slightest. It only became more ardent . . . especially the day in 2000 when demonstrators out to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia got out of control, and Himself! rode a bicycle head-on into the mob and launched Himself airborne from his bike seat, yodeling an old Irish war cry—"Fuck you!"—as he tackled a rude, self-righteous rowdy boy and smashed him to the ground. Le tout Philadelphia loved it all, ate it up.

So went the heroics. In fact, what really reduced crime in Philadelphia so dramatically under Timoney were tactics he had worked on in New York with Police Commissioner William Bratton: pro-active patrolling (spotting—and hassling—the skells before they strike); Timoney's specialty, which was daily CompStat statistics (keeping track of precisely where they have been striking); and Bratton's specialty, "quality-of-life" arrests. The theory was that if you made it a policy to crack down on minor offenses, fare beating, brown-bag drinking on the streets, boom-box noise violations, truancy, graffiti, vagrancy masquerading as homelessness, teenage rowdiness, and random vandalism, you would erase the skells' impression that this town is Open City for far worse. It worked in New York, and Timoney made it work in Philadelphia.

If anything, all the skell quells, shootouts, and yodeling Himself-missiles distracted the press and the public from the secret weapon located immediately behind that face, namely, what the test pilot Scott Crossfield, upon the advent of digitally computerized flight controls, placed his bets on: "a chemical analog computer of vast power, easily reproducible by unskilled labor, known as the human brain." Timoney had been awarded practically every honor a street-combat policeman could receive, including the Medal of Valor, but there is no question that brainpower was responsible for much of the speed of his rise through the ranks of the New York Police Department. The department brass put a heavy emphasis on higher education, so much so that they were flexible when it came to an officer serving on the force and going to college at the same time. Any ambitious policeman was going to take advantage of the opportunity, especially since he could not rise beyond the rank of captain without a bachelor's degree. Timoney graduated from the John Jay College in Manhattan at twenty-six and didn't stop there. He received a master's degree in American history from Fordham two years later and a second master's, this one in urban planning, from Hunter College four years after that.

The public's first glimpse of the tough Irish cop's intellectual side came in 1987 when the New York Daily News revealed that Timoney and five other policemen had formed a book club. Every month they met to discuss a particular book—always a classic such as Crime and Punishment or Madame Bovary, if not a classic among classics on the order of The Iliad. Now that the word was out, he was invited to Mount Holyoke College to lecture on Crime and Punishment. An exegesis of this, the most psychologically subtle of Dostoyevsky's novels, coming from . . . that face . . . so wowed Mount Holyoke students and faculty, he was invited to give the same lecture at Amherst. Crime and Punishment's climax comes when a police detective's interrogation of the main character, Raskolnikov—strictly verbal, I should stress, in light of what was about to happen—so thoroughly dismantles the young intellectual's philosophical self-justification of his crime that he is overcome by guilt and confesses that, yes, he was the one who murdered his landlady.

In the question period after the lecture, a student, a girl, young and pretty as a morning glory opening to the first rays of the sun, asks Timoney, "Chief, how many killers turn themselves in because of pangs of conscience?"

Oh-oh, the chief has a problem here. He has just spent an hour holding forth on exactly that. He doesn't want to disillusion the tender young flower's virginal—he assumes—view of human nature by telling her the truth, which is, "I can't remember one . . . ever." So he . . . uhmmmmm . . . shades things a bit and says, "Ohhhh . . . about five percent."

Without a blink, the flower says, "And how many do you have to beat a confession out of?"

Stunned, Timoney says, "None, I hope! Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Oh," the little morning glory says brightly, "I watch NYPD Blue."

NYPD Blue? "If I were your parents," says Timoney, "I would ask for my tuition back!"

In real life, however, real blue knuckle sandwiches were among the offenses that brought Timoney to Miami in December 2002 as chief of police (the top cop, since Miami had no office of police commissioner). America is a wonderful country. Only in America could people from a foreign country, with a foreign language and a foreign culture, have taken control, via the voting booth, of a metropolitan area the size of Miami's in one generation. I am talking about Cuban refugees from the Castro regime, whom the federal government welcomed to Miami by the hundreds of thousands from 1959 on. By now, December 2002, the mayor was Cuban, the police chief was Cuban, his top brass were heavily Cuban—in fact, the entire force, all the way down to street patrolmen, was heavily Cuban. So were those cops most commonly accused of excessive use of force, outright brutality, and outrageous lying and cheating. The bitterest accusers were the American black residents of Miami's two big slums, Liberty City and Overtown. They regarded the Cubans as foreigners who had suddenly dropped from the sky like paratroopers, taken over the police force, started shoving them around . . . and giving them blue knuckle sandwiches . . . By the time Timoney arrived, thirteen officers were on trial in a sensational case charging them with planting guns at crime scenes and otherwise rigging evidence and concocting stories to cover up for themselves and their brother blue knucklers. The mayor, Manny Diaz, and the city manager, Carlos Gimenez, saw Timoney as a man who could reform the police department with a free hand. He had no political or natural ties in Miami. An Irishman born in Dublin? In Miami, by 2002, he might as well have been from Mars. Quite aside from the Cubans, Miami had become a polyglot of immigrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean. Since 1980, Haitians had poured in, legally or otherwise, in huge numbers.

Timoney made Mayor Diaz look good. That face snapped the police force to attention, reassured the American black population, and soothed the souls of the entire polyglot lot. Right off the bat he made a meet-and-greet tour of Liberty City and Overtown and listened face-to-face as people complained about the police department. He gave them all the time they wanted and promised them fair treatment from now on. This business of police officers planting guns and dreaming up other fraudulent evidence? Timoney did more than put an end to it. He established a strict protocol regarding the use of weapons. During one twenty-month stretch, nobody in the entire Miami Police Department fired a single shot—and the city's rate of violent crime, one of the highest in the nation, dropped steadily.

In the process, Mayor Manny Diaz and Police Chief John Timoney have become the Diaz & Timoney Duo . . . masters of defusion. Whenever any group in Miami's simmering immigrant stew began to boil over, Diaz & Timoney would appear before them, and Timoney would say, "I'm John Timoney, chief of police. I'm an immigrant from Dublin, Ireland. And this is our mayor, Manny Diaz. The mayor is an immigrant from Havana, Cuba. What can we do for you?" After that the—

Well, I could tell you Timoney tales from now until the sun comes up, but the book before us is not John Timoney's personal memoir. And I say, thank God for that. A memoir—anybody's memoir—is like Wikipedia: some of it may be true. Timoney does something far more valuable. He takes us inside the world of police work in three big cities: New York, Philadelphia, and Miami. He shows us metropolitan cops in action, their strategies, their sensitivity to public opinion, and, most fascinating of all to me, the political games they have no choice but to play.

Believe me, you have a treat on your hands, product of the sharp eyes and insightful Irish utterances of . . . that face.

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