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Want to Report in Police Headquarters? The NYPD Says You Need a Chaperone

The police department is requiring reporters who wish to report from headquarters to sign papers committing to new restrictions.

The Entrance to One Police Plaza (Flickr / ajay_suresh)

In December, the NYPD evicted reporters who cover the department from "the shack," their cramped workspace on the second floor of police headquarters at One Police Plaza, moving them to a more spacious but considerably less convenient space in a trailer out behind 1PP. Reporters howled that the move would make it more difficult to cover an already secretive and opaque department, but the NYPD pushed back, insisting to Vanity Fair that the relocation actually "is a planned move… toward greater NYPD transparency."

In a new set of regulations distributed to reporters covering the NYPD, we're now getting a sense of what that greater NYPD transparency will look like: Reporters who wish to report out of One Police Plaza will now have to agree to being escorted through the building by an NYPD minder at all times.

That new rule is outlined in a document that NYPD beat reporters must sign if they want to use the new office. "Authorized journalists must adhere to the following," the document reads, before rattling off a list of restrictions on journalists: Reporters will no longer be able to use their credentials past the security checkpoint without a security screening. Past the security cordon, they're supposed to stay in the trailer or the little courtyard out back of the trailer. If they want to use the public bathroom on the ground floor of the headquarters, that's okay. They can also go to the cafeteria on the ground floor.

Beyond those destinations, though, "when traveling throughout police headquarters, authorized members of the media must be escorted by a member of Headquarters Security or DCPI," the new regulations state.

Even to attend disciplinary trials, which take place on the fourth floor and are open to the public, reporters will be required to notify the cops on duty at Headquarters Security. 

Some reporters have already signed on to the new restrictions. Others are resisting, regarding the new regulations as an unwarranted impingement on their ability to do their jobs.

Decades ago, shack reporters like Leonard Levitt prowled the halls of One Police Plaza largely unencumbered, working the beat and talking to cops of every rank and assignment to help New Yorkers understand what was happening inside the very large and very secretive police department they pay for. 

Successive regimes of NYPD leadership have worked to tighten things up since Levitt's day. The office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, the NYPD's sprawling communications shop on the 13th floor of its headquarters, has never been enthusiastic about the public learning about anything outside of what the department wants it to know, and by all accounts, the current leadership is especially hostile to the idea of reporters rooting around department business. (Check out the current Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, Tarik Sheppard, reacting last month when a reporter dared to ask where the police commissioner was.)

"They want everything to flow through the 13th floor," a shack source told Hell Gate of NYPD leadership. "They don't want reporters randomly dropping in on other bureaus and talking to people and getting information."

There are some obvious problems with DCPI being the clearinghouse of all information about the NYPD. One, like any agency comms shop, their sense of what the public needs to know is heavily filtered through their sense of what makes their department look good. If reporters relied entirely on official channels to learn what's going on in the NYPD, the public would know a lot about cute K-9s and gaming trucks and much less about, say, the resurgence of stop-and-frisk policing.

Another problem—perhaps related—is that despite being very well-resourced with dozens of employees, DCPI is not very good at answering straightforward questions from the press. For this story, Hell Gate asked DCPI what prompted the new regulations for reporters, how many reporters are using the new media center, and how many have signed the document. DCPI didn't answer at all. DCPI also didn't get back to us last week when we asked what the commissioner was doing in the Dominican Republic in December. When Hell Gate asked DCPI last month about when and why the NYPD decided to enter into an agreement to provide evidence to civilian investigators in police misconduct cases, DCPI did write back—but didn't answer our questions.

Under these circumstances, reporters covering the NYPD naturally do whatever they can to find out what's actually going on in one of the most powerful and opaque parts of the municipal apparatus, cultivating relationships with rank-and-file cops, chatting with people in bureaus throughout the department, or just riding the elevator up and down all day in hopes of catching some scuttlebutt. And it is precisely this sort of reporting that the NYPD is attempting to shut down.

And while it's gracious of the NYPD to allow reporters to at least use the bathroom without being accompanied by an Intourist minder, the department's latest retreat ever deeper into secrecy and suspicion of the public it serves is both petty, and, without putting too fine a point on it, bad for New York City. 

In fairness to the NYPD, there is an alternate theory circulating for the motivation of the new restrictions: One reporter was known to lurk outside the room where the department holds its CompStat meetings, helping himself to the complimentary food. "He was eating all their bagels," the shack source said. "They didn't like that."

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