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Timoney Has Made a Career of Cleaning Up Police Messes

First of three candidate profiles

September 22, 2002|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — John F. Timoney is miserable.

He has a retired cop's dream job--a quarter-million-dollar salary and a 35th-floor Manhattan office overlooking the pulsing streets where his exploits as a patrol officer and administrator made him a New York Police Department legend. And he is a celebrity in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, where he served as police commissioner for four years, acclaimed for shaking up a hidebound department and personally collaring crime suspects while speeding around town on his racing bicycle.

But John Timoney is lost without the daily blood-churning stress of running a big-city police force, just another forlorn civilian in a suit since he resigned from his Philadelphia post a year ago to manage a private-sector New York security firm. "I miss the phone calls at 3 o'clock in the morning," he admitted in an interview last week. " 'Commissioner, we've got a problem--we shot the wrong guy.' I miss being part of the action."

Timoney, 54, has made a career of taking on messes that police executives dread. One of three finalists for Los Angeles' next police chief selected last week by the city's Police Commission, Timoney straddles clashing extremes in American law enforcement. He is an ardent advocate of coalition building and civilian participation in policing who thinks and reacts like an old-line beat cop. Timoney's agility at melding those impulses has won plaudits from tough-justice advocates and reformers alike, but a stubborn streak and candor bordering on recklessness have repeatedly dimmed his brilliant career.

In New York, Timoney rose in a sweeping trajectory that took him from South Bronx patrolman in the 1970s to the top deputy's post in the 1990s under Commissioner William Bratton, now a rival for the LAPD job. A clenched-faced athlete whose dense brogue betrays his roots as an Irish immigrant, Timoney became the starched uniform to Bratton's pinstripes. He implemented and cheer-led Bratton's computer-based reforms, unleashing New York beat cops to reverse years of spiraling crime. Then, chosen as Philadelphia's police commissioner by Mayor Ed Rendell, Timoney was both tireless advocate and scourge for that city's crisis-weary force.

Driven, impulsive, brutally frank, Timoney was revered for reducing property crime in Philadelphia. He won admirers among minority and political leaders and nimbly kept the peace with a minimum of arrests and street violence when protests threatened the Republican National Convention in 2000.

"Commissioner Timoney is the real deal," said Philadelphia Councilman Michael Nutter, who represents a heavily black electoral district in West Philadelphia. "He understands the delicate nature of politics, the needs of ethnic communities and how to size up a situation and, in the end, do the right thing."

Timoney has also been his own worst enemy at times. He quit the NYPD after he was passed over for the top job, an exit hastened when he publicly disparaged then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a "screw-up." He served two mayors in Philadelphia but, after four years in the limelight, the marathoner suddenly hit a wall.

Timoney's police were unable to make significant reductions in the sparring with a powerful police union and a skeptical press. He resigned last year for undisclosed "personal reasons," months after Philadelphia Mayor John Street told him to transfer a department homicide supervisor who had been given a 20-day suspension for crashing an unmarked police car after a night of drinking.

His muted departure did not chip away at Timoney's stature in Philadelphia, where he still lives in a rented apartment with his wife, Noreen. They have two grown children. A year after leaving his commissioner's post to manage the security firm on New York City's East 42nd Street run by Beau Dietl, a former NYPD sergeant who once worked under him, the restless Timoney is still acclaimed by Philadelphians.

At dawn, from the banks of the Schuylkill River, gawkers yell "Yo, commissioner!" as Timoney rows by in his two-man scull, said his rowing partner, Mark O'Connor. The jutting-jawed Timoney is still such a public presence in town that a privately commissioned political poll recently found that his name recognition rivals that of most political figures in the city, including Street's.

Throughout his career, Timoney has prospered by projecting the image of a tough but fair cop willing to join his street officers on the dirtiest assignments--a "cop's cop," as one of his New York literary circle friends, author Tom Wolfe, has called him. He is also a street intellect, a self-taught bookworm who set up a reading club for New York cops and lectured on Dostoevski's portrait of the criminal mind. Every June 14, he recites passages from James Joyce's "Ulysses" for "Bloomsday," the annual reenactment of the Irish author's seminal work.

For years, Timoney has shown up for roll calls at stationhouses on lonely Christmases and other holidays.

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