Wednesday, March 27, 2013
NYPD Losing Its ‘Four-Star General’
He will leave the force after more than 44 years, more than 12 of them as the longest-serving chief in department history, with a reputation as a steady strategist, a cop’s cop and a loyal defender of the agency with enough charisma to doff his hat at protesters during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Times Square.
“He’s not a household name,” said civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel, a frequent critic of NYPD tactics. “Kelly and [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg get the credit, but you have to recognize the operational person. That was Chief Esposito.”
He doesn’t go willingly. On Thursday, Chief Esposito will reach the mandatory retirement age of 63. “In 44½ years, I’ve never asked for a transfer,” he said in a recent interview in an office decorated with commendations and photos. “I went and I did it and I was happy there.”
Among many rank-and-file officers in the 35,000-member force, Chief Esposito has achieved a near-mythical status. He is often respectfully called a “grunt,” reflecting his climb to the department’s upper ranks while seeming to recall the lessons of his street-cop days. Out of earshot, he is called “Espo.”
“I’m quite certain he never asked anyone to do anything he hadn’t done himself,” Mr. Moreno said.
He took the chief’s job about a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and oversaw the agency’s evolution from a traditional crime-fighting organization to one that embraced an anti-terror mission. Under his tenure, crime rates have fallen to historic lows. “He’s been a bulwark of everything we’ve done here,” Mr. Kelly said recently.
At the same time, Chief Esposito has executed policies that haven’t settled well with everyone in the city. Mr. Siegel said his legacy won’t be clear until legal challenges to tactics such as stop-and-frisk, surveillance in Muslim communities and the handling of large-scale protests are heard by the courts.
Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said he has watched Chief Esposito operate during large street protests over the past decade and called him “a calming influence.”
During the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, Chief Esposito took on his most public role, attending the protests regularly. Many blamed him for tactics they saw as overbearing, but others noted the role he took in negotiating between the demonstrators and his officers. At a private Halloween party in 2012, the chief dressed as an OWS protester, a person familiar with the event said.
In the interview, Chief Esposito defended the department and its policies. He said 10% of the population “will say we’re being heavy-handed and stretching constitutional rights,” while another 10% will support the NYPD unequivocally.
“You have to protect everybody,” he said. “But the only people I’m going to convince that we’re doing the right thing are those 80% in the middle.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised mostly in Bensonhurst, Chief Esposito considered entering the priesthood. His future father-in-law nudged him toward law enforcement, and he joined the department after high school.
After a few years as a “police trainee,” a position that no longer exists, he was assigned as a full-time police officer in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct in Crown Heights in April 1971. That year, the city registered 1,466 homicides, nearly triple the number of murders recorded in 2012.
In 1978, as a plainclothes officer in Bushwick’s 83rd Precinct, he shot and wounded a suspect. Two years later, he and his partner, Fred Falcone, killed two armed suspects and wounded a third. A Brooklyn grand jury declined to indict them. “I think about them all the time,” Chief Esposito said of the incidents.
The pair was commended but also reassigned to Flushing, Queens, and then to Chelsea amid community unrest over the second shooting. Mr. Falcone, who retired in 1992, said the investigation and the grand jury deliberations unnerved him but not his partner. “He would say, ‘Hey, we will get through this,’” Mr. Falcone recalled. “We had to make an instantaneous decision, and he knew we did the right thing.” The pair is still close.
Chief Esposito was coy about his next step. He pointed skyward and said he would “do whatever He tells me to do.” But he is aware there will likely be a shake-up of the NYPD’s civilian leadership next year. The mandatory retirement age doesn’t apply to civilians, such as Mr. Kelly and now, the former chief. “If they’re smart, they’ll keep Ray Kelly,” he said. “Public service: I love it. I’d love to do something.”