PlanPhilly book review: “Beat Cop to Top Cop: A Tale of Three Cities”

An urban planner can learn a lot from a grizzled Irish cop. Especially when said Irish cop has spent a career in three large American cities, “from beat cop to top cop,” and also happens to have a master’s degree – in urban planning.

Such a man would be none other than former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney. His book, “Top Cop to Beat Cop, A Tale of Three Cities,” published this summer by the University of Pennsylvania Press, is a hybrid memoir-textbook, shining a light on policy changes in the New York, Philadelphia and Miami police departments for which he served and led.

The volume is part of a series published in collaboration with the Penn Institute for Urban Research, edited by Eugenie Birch and Susan Wachter, called “The City in the 21st Century.” The forward is written by an enthusiastic Tom Wolfe, famed novelist (“A Man in Full,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities”) and personal friend of the law man, who speaks of Timoney with a sort of casual reverence. Wolfe writes of Timoney the semi-legend, with that grizzled red mug of his, embodying the Irish, working-class, no-nonsense myth of the law man who bleeds green and blue, with flair to spare.

He recounts the famous episode when Timoney, brand new as Philadelphia’s police commissioner in 1998, ran down a purse thief near Rittenhouse Square – and after his daily five-mile run, to boot. Then there was the 2000 Republican National Convention, when Timoney led his bicycle division forces, Braveheart–style, into the thick of a mob of protesters.

Timoney got his master’s in urban planning from Hunter College in New York, after already completing his first masters in American history from Fordham.

The book chronicles Timoney’s rise through the ranks of the New York Police Department, which he entered immediately after high school in 1967. Recalls Wolfe: “I remember asking Inspector Timoney if the NYPD still recruited Irish policemen. ‘Yeah,’ he said, “We recruit them, but now they all come from the suburbs … And to tell the truth, a lot of them are cream puffs. These days if you want a real Irish cop, you hire a Puerto Rican.’”

Race is a topic that Timoney is qualified to address, having dealt with its issues on both sides of the thin blue line. He recounts in detail, for instance, the many lessons learned over the decades with regard to racial stereotyping – not just black and white, but Jewish, Latino, Middle Eastern, and of course, Irish. And everything in between.

Moving through Timoney’s career – in the south Bronx, as a grad student, in the narcotics division, in management, as chief of police – you begin to realize that a smart city cop with a sharp eye for the big picture and a penchant for detailed memory could yield seasoned observations about generational urban ebb and flow.

In 1978, Timoney learned that he had been awarded an NYPD scholarship to attend Hunter. “It seems too good to be true,” he wrote. “A year’s leave of absence with pay to obtain a master’s degree. As I look back on the cold February night, finding that scholarship announcement was probably the turning point in my career.”

It was, for Timoney, “this whole new notion of public policy.” At Hunter, he would meet Donna Shalala, Hunter’s president, who had worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and later served for eight years in the Clinton administration.

He also met Birch, who he says was “one of the forerunners of mapping housing patterns – including abandoned areas and their relationship to social ills, including crime.”

Birch was working, Timoney went on, “with early computer programs that examined the relationship between housing, abandonment, poverty rates, and a whole host of quality-of-life issues.” It was Birch, in 1993, who shared with Timoney a new computer program addressing the correlation between abandoned homes, poverty and unemployment. Later, when Timoney came to Philly, Birch provided the Police Department with expert computer mappers from Penn.

But that’s pretty much the extent of his thoughts on planning. While he rightly focuses on the way policing has evolved over his career and his role in those changes, one would think that a book with the Penn Institute for Urban Research imprimatur would include more thoughts on how the urban environment itself has evolved. Timoney has been in a unique position to observe, in three unique American cities, how planning and its absence has affected downtowns, neighborhoods and the city-suburban dynamic.

He has seen, first hand, the rise and fall of high-rise housing projects, white flight and gentrification, and major changes in public transportation, to name a few issues. In Philadelphia, he was in charge when Center City began its renaissance. In Miami, he had a front-row look at modern, urban immigration issues. In New York, he witnessed a city at rock-bottom in terms of crime and insolvency, only to make a dramatic comeback (the story of Times Square alone would have made an interesting chapter on the nexus of planning, development and anti-crime measures). But none of that comes out in “Top Cop.”

Which is a shame for those who spend their days concerned with the built environment. In fact, it was a missed opportunity from a colorful, intelligent writer. Timoney included very little about his personal life, which is fine. But he stuck to his guns to a fault by sparing us most of his inner thoughts on the workings of big-city America that go on beyond the thin blue line.

It should come as no surprise that a book penned by a veteran top cop is written in a plainspoken and direct manner. Sentences are compact, to the point, and eloquently blunt – rather like the man himself, who still speaks in a clipped brogue (his family left Ireland for New York when he was 12). And while he does not get his Irish up very often, there are moments of genuine, lilting, writerly prose, where you can just about hear that unmistakable upward inflection at the end of sentences.

For locals, Timoney’s story is strong enough to carry you through the non–Philadelphia parts of the book. It’s clear from stories of everything from the direct policies of CompStat to shootings from three decades ago that Timoney brings it all to bear for the big urban picture, and that no action (or inaction) is without its long-term consequences. Effects of changes in police use-of-force (blackjacks to pepper spray), gun discharges and car chases, to cite a few examples, make for fascinating reading.

One of Timoney’s legacies is that he was not afraid to display his intellectual vigor in a bastion of American male bravado. In addition to his advanced degrees, the chief often instituted common sense measures – based on ambitious research – to everyday police work. And as Wolfe recalls, Timoney was one of a half dozen cops to form a book club (reported in a 1987 story in the New York Daily News), discussing The Iliad, Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment, among others.

His thoughts on the Dostoyevsky novel became the basis for lectures he gave at Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges, but more recently, Timoney sat for an interview that inlcuded four of his other favorite books, too. The short interview, conducted here for, is almost more revealing about his world view than the whole of “Top Cop.”

One of his favorites is “Behind the Shield: The Police in Urban Society,”  by Arthur Niederhoffer. “The author describes the emergence of what sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘anomie’, the notion of isolation, frustration, and the development of an us-versus-them attitude,” Timoney said in the interview.

Another is “Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum,” by William Foote Whyte, published in the early 40s. “The more books like ‘Street Corner Society’ that a police officer is exposed to, the better position he is in to understand the cultural mores of the community he is serving,” he said, adding that throughout his career, he served in myriad ethnic neighborhoods. “While they are all considered communities within an American city, they all have their distinct differences. Failure to understand these differences can be insulting at the least and fatal at the worst.”

It’s that kind of insight – inclusive of the top cop and the beat cop, but taking it just a step further outside that often-closed realm – that we all would benefit from hearing more of.

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