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.’”
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 FiveBooks.com, 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.
Contact the writer at .