In the 1990s, cop reporting was not a strength of the New York Times, and I’d often get calls from the Metro desk asking if I could help match something or other that had been in the tabs. I was Irish and Catholic and had grown up in Brooklyn along with other kids who wound up “on the job.” Oh, and I was an ex-sportswriter, too. I guess I had the pedigree of a cop reporter, if not any demonstrated talent.
I got a call at home one night in March of 1996. Earlier that day, John Timoney, the outgoing first deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department, had been given a hero’s reception during a promotion ceremony at Police Headquarters. It amounted to an act of collective insubordination, for Timoney was exiting the department after having been passed over by Mayor Rudy Giuliani to succeed Bill Bratton as commissioner.
The Times, I guess, hadn’t had anyone at the ceremony, and now we needed to catch up. No one had a number for Timoney, and the next edition closed in 40 minutes. It so happened that I’d once been introduced to Timoney, by Mike McAlary of the Daily News (Irish, Catholic, a former sportswriter, and a great cop reporter). I managed to track down Timoney’s home number.
Timoney took my call. He was great, and, miracle of miracles, he was on the record. Timoney had been born in Dublin and raised in Northern Manhattan, his dad a New York City doorman. He’d been a beat cop, but had also earned master’s degrees in American history and urban planning. He was a reader of literature and an expert in police shootings. He’d been the youngest four-star chief in the history of the department.
”Plans? I have none,” Timoney said that night. “I hope I have left some bridges unburned.”
Cops don’t get a lot of good press. Ever. Certainly not lately. Timoney, who died Tuesday night at the age of 68, after a brief, brutal fight with cancer, actually got his fair share. Mostly on the merits. After leaving New York City, he served as the top cop in Philadelphia and Miami. He took heat for his handling of the Republican Convention in 2000, and he got credit for radically reducing police shootings in Miami. He wrote a book or two, taught at Harvard, and most recently drew criticism for agreeing to work for the government of Bahrain, training its security forces. Human-rights advocates accused Timoney of siding with the oppressors; Timoney, at the time, told National Public Radio that he wouldn’t have been in Bahrain if he wasn’t convinced “that these folks are serious about reform.”
But Timoney never made it back to the NYPD He watched Ray Kelly, Irish Catholic son of a milkman, run the department for 12 years. He respected Kelly, and recognized the magnitude of the challenge New York’s police commissioner faced — fighting terrorism while under pressure to cut crime to newly historic lows year after year. He never criticized Kelly, but he had to have measured his own past promise against Kelly’s accomplishments and shortcomings.
I don’t know if Timoney would have been a great commissioner. He could be stubborn, vain, hotheaded. But I think he would have made the department more human, a quality needed in times like these. Kelly — capable, smart, devoted — grew imperious and all-controlling over the years. He didn’t just stifle dissent, he choked off the voices of his own cops. And they had a ton of good stories to tell — of success and diversity and valor. Kelly’s cops didn’t take calls from reporters.
Timoney was a rower — he liked to get out on the Schuylkill River in the early morning, before heading to Police Headquarters in Philadelphia — and he sent me a link the other day to the video clips of the hilarious Irish silver-medal rowers in Rio. He was a marathoner, too, and was a fan of my uncle, George Sheehan, one of the early evangelists of what was once called the running movement. Earlier this year, I included something my uncle once said in an email to Timoney, who was beginning chemotherapy treatment.
“The runner is not in a game; he is in a contest. When you race, you are under oath. When you race, you are testifying as to who you are.”
John Timoney was a good cop. No small thing in America, in 2016.
–Joe Sexton, ProPublica
This story was co-published with The New Yorker.