Tuesday, March 10, 1998

New top cop starts work

John Timoney stormed into Philadelphia determined to bring the police department to modern standards. He worked fast... from the very beginning.


BYLINE: Howard Goodman and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

In a foul-smelling courtroom in a shabby police station in the blighted heart of one of Philadelphia's most drug-infested and violent neighborhoods, John F. Timoney yesterday began bonding with the police department that is suddenly his.

On his first day on the job, the new commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department began at 7 a.m., addressing morning roll call at the 24th and 25th Districts of Fairhill, Kensington and North Philadelphia.

"Have a safe tour," Timoney told groups of officers unused to seeing so important a personage at their daily ritual.

"This won't be my last visit," he added. "Maybe some night at 1 o'clock in the morning, I'll pop in and drive in a radio car with you."

The 49-year-old former deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department is so new in town that his Rittenhouse Square apartment doesn't have a telephone yet. He is working out of temporary quarters at the Municipal Services Building because his office at the Police Administration Building is getting a coat of paint.

His swearing-in will not take place until today at City Hall.

But he was off and running.

"Full speed ahead," Timoney said jauntily at 8 a.m.

With rain falling hard outside the 24th-25th District headquarters at Front and Westmoreland Streets ("Irish weather," the Dublin-born Timoney called it), the new commissioner told reporters he had two messages for the police officers who had stood at attention for their day's orders.

"One, I started off in a district similar to this in the South Bronx, where I spent eight years," said Timoney, who logged 29 years with the New York Police Department. "So I know intimately what they face on a daily basis.

"I wanted them to know that, while they work hard now, I expect them to work a lot harder in the future.

"And two, if things go wrong - and I guarantee you, in policing things go wrong all the time - if they are trying to do the right thing but it's an innocent mistake, then they will have my support wholeheartedly. I will put my life on the line for them.

"By the same token, if they do the wrong thing, if they have evil intent, then I will deal with them accordingly. We will not put up with brutal or unprofessional police officers.

"The idea of being an aggressive police force," Timoney said, "does not necessarily mean the police force has to be brutal, has to be corrupt, has to use extra-legal measures to do their job."

Capt. William Colarulo, head of the 25th District, called Timoney's appearance "refreshing."

"That Timoney started his first day "at the busiest and most blighted area of Philadelphia, I think it sends a clear, loud message to these officers that he's out here for them, and I think they appreciate that and they understand that," Colarulo said.

Ranking officials said they could not remember the last time a police commissioner had visited the overcrowded and run-down police station, headquarters for the East Division.

The division accounts for nearly half of the city's drug arrests and is considered a major hub for drug trafficking throughout the Northeastern United States. The murder rate in Fairhill section of the 25th District is seven times the city average.

In the afternoon, Timoney plunged into another troubled precinct, the 39th District headquarters at 22d Street and Hunting Park Avenue. Around 3 p.m. he addressed roll calls of officers heading out for night patrol.

Timoney said there was a reason he came to the Tioga section headquarters, erected in 1915 and rocked by a police-misconduct scandal a few years ago. Six officers received federal prison terms for framing people and preying on drug dealers, and three more were arrested in a separate local probe. Their actions resulted in about 300 criminal cases being thrown out because of tainted evidence.

"These officers should not feel that they are abandoned," Timoney told reporters. "I have worked in police houses in New York that were plagued by scandal, and I know the embarrassment that the good officers feel when they get caught with that brush."

But he warned that officers cannot break the law to enforce the law, "no matter how good your intentions."

Inspector Joseph O'Connor, head of the East Division, said his troops felt energized by Timoney. Councilman Rick Mariano, who grew up two miles from 24th-25th District headquarters and who attended the morning roll call, said local residents were buoyed by the mere fact of Timoney's arrival.

"I can see the difference since he's been talking," Mariano said. "He hasn't done a thing yet, but it's in their mind: There's a perception that safety's coming."

Timoney said police would step up their attack against drugs and violence in the East Division with better training, more resources and an overall plan.

"I guarantee you in the next few months you're going to see a lot more activity here," Timoney said, "a lot more police."

Timoney said he had received a permit to carry a gun in Pennsylvania, but he said he wouldn't carry a city-issued Glock. Instead, he'll rely on the .38-caliber revolver he's used for years.

He said he had not yet chosen deputy commissioners. Richard Costello, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said a key test of the new commissioner's effectiveness would be whether he chooses his deputies independent of the mayor's office.

"He should have the right to pick his four deputies and an executive officer without any interference, without any politics," Costello said. "In 25 years, I've never known a commissioner who had that ability."

Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Mayor Rendell, said the mayor would give Timoney a free hand.

In defiance of Philadelphia's reputed coolness to outsiders, Timoney said yesterday that he had received a "lovely card" of congratulations, signed by numerous police officers from across the city.

"Some ingenious cop must have traveled all around the city," Timoney said, a glint in his eye. "It pleased me to no end."

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