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November 8, 2009

The New York Times

Permitted Behind Police Lines, but Not Welcome


Journalist Leonard Levitt at 1 Police Plaza

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

“WELCOME to Police Headquarters,” announces the sign at the entrance to 1 Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan. That passes for humor to Leonard Levitt, a former police reporter and columnist for Newsday, who needed the help of civil rights lawyers to regain his press pass after being barred from the building a few years back. Now retired, Mr. Levitt, 68, still makes weekly rounds at Police Headquarters to feed his Web site, nypdconfidential.com, which recently broke the news that the department had removed a senior official from an antiterrorism unit over the disruption of a federal investigation.

“I know exactly how he feels because I’ve also walked through that building when I was persona non grata,” said the whistle-blowing detective Frank Serpico, whom Mr. Levitt first met in 1971 while covering the Knapp Commission corruption hearings. “He writes about the deals that are made in back rooms. He’s not easily intimidated, and he stands his ground.”

Asked about Mr. Levitt, Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, wrote in an e-mail message: “His self-absorbed bitterness and inaccuracy remind me of the old biddy, an aging malicious gossip I knew growing up in the Bronx.”

William J. Bratton, the former police commissioner, said he respected Mr. Levitt’s reporting and enjoyed his recent book, “N.Y.P.D. Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country’s Greatest Police Force” (Thomas Dunne Books), but also recalled their tussles.

“He’s been in the doghouse from time to time when I was there, but we called it the penalty box,” Mr. Bratton said. “We wouldn’t talk to him for a while, but then we’d let him out. With the press, you can’t control what they write but you try to influence it as best you can.” (story continues below photo.)

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Mr. Levitt stops by the press area to speak with former colleagues who cover the N.Y.P.D

A PHOTOGRAPH of Mr. Levitt is no longer posted at the security desk, but the officers recognize him anyhow. “Did you read it yet?” he asked one who inquired about the book. She asked to borrow a copy. He laughed.

He chatted up various officials about the mayoral election and whether it could shake up the police hierarchy, but got nowhere. Even Mr. Levitt’s best sources will not speak to him here — “career suicide” is how one chief put it, he said. But he still comes to “wave my flag,” schmoozing with anyone he sees and asking to speak to police brass, who invariably decline to meet him.

“The lower-level people are polite,” he said, “but the upper-level people won’t talk to me at all.”

IN THE PRESS ROOM, Mr. Levitt is always welcome, and he ambled in shouting reporters’ names like a drill sergeant.

Phil Messing, a veteran police reporter for The New York Post, joked, “Where’s the entourage?” a reference to Mr. Levitt once having a department-issued minder shadowing him through the building.

Mr. Levitt and Rocco Parascandola of The Daily News chewed over a tasty morsel relating to the day’s announcement that Phil Pulaski had been promoted to replace George Brown as chief of detectives. The farewell party for Chief Brown — no favorite of the commissioner, Mr. Levitt said — was canceled because the department scheduled a news conference announcing the new chief in the auditorium.

“He’s still very well read here, and it’s clear that he’s a burr in their saddle,” another veteran Post reporter, Murray Weiss, said of Mr. Levitt. “His arrival here was a huge to-do — phone calls from the front desk to upstairs — like he was a fugitive in the building.”

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

AFTER CHECKING the bulletin board for postings about retirement parties, Emerald Society functions and other events where he might cultivate sources, Mr. Levitt entered the Internal Affairs Bureau.

“I’m going to ask for a chief who won’t see me,” he whispered. “Watch, they’ll say, ‘He’s busy in a meeting.’ ”

“Is the chief here?” he asked two young officers closest to the front desk.

Is he expecting you?

“Well, I called,” Mr. Levitt said.

They checked, and reported back that the chief was, indeed, unavailable.

So he went to Room 1312: Chief of detectives. Mr. Levitt tells a story about a previous chief who rejected his business card after being warned by a colleague: “If you get into an accident on the way home, you don’t want that found in your car.”

“Is the new chief here?” Mr. Levitt asked. “I wanted to give him my best wishes.”

Not just now, came the reply.

AT THE PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICE, Mr. Levitt got a cheery but uninformative reception.

“Lenny, how are you?” one detective asked.

Said another, “I wasn’t expecting you till tomorrow.”

“Kevin, did you read the book? You’re in it,” Mr. Levitt yelled to a detective on the phone.

Mr. Levitt said he was seeking comment from Mr. Browne, the deputy commissioner of public information, for his column about a police lieutenant who killed himself last year. A detective disappeared for a minute and returned to say, “Not available, sir.”

Mr. Levitt was standing beneath a framed photograph of Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who once traveled to Newsday’s Long Island offices to complain about critical coverage. He smiled and said, “Why am I not surprised?”

Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com