Today, the Mayor of London made an appearance at the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center for a short meeting with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. Joined by many deputies and press aides, the two men had a short meeting about the NYPD's "Domain Awareness System," New York's complex network of cameras, radiation detectors, license plate scanners, and related high-tech devices. Subsequently, the two men made brief remarks to the British and American journalists assembled in the center's main situation room. Nothing of major import was said.
I found myself at this press conference because the NYPD requires every New York journalist to reapply for their official press credentials every two years. My credential, like the credentials of every other reporter in New York, actually expired on January 15th, but because of a problem with the Deputy Commission of Public Information's "laminating machine," new press cards have yet to be issued.
Everyone at the Gothamist headquarters finds this suspicious, because the press cards are clearly printed on some kind of card printing device, and not laminated at all, and also because no matter when you got your card (even on January 14th), the cards all expire at exactly the same time, creating a kind of panic herd of press people calling the office for reapplication appointments, which of course completely overwhelms the system, leaving some outlets, including ours, in a kind of "expired credential limbo." DCPI claims that we shouldn't worry though, they'll get us in soon enough and until then we'll probably be fine.
I've been putting off getting new clips for several weeks, as it requires attending a very specific subset of press conferences given by the Mayor, his agencies, or the City Council- during our first application, a few years ago, we found that although breaking news clips are officially accepted, the office gives you such a hard time about using them, that it's not even worth it, and it's just easier to go to the press conferences and give them exactly the clips the NYPD seems to want. This is not difficult for all the other bloggers and journalists in the office, who are forced to attend these kinds of events as part of their normal work routine, but as a publisher, I'm able to delegate these responsibilities, and that has left me needing six clips (or really eight, to be on the safe side.)
Jen Chung has been on my ass to get these done since Thanksgiving, but I've procrastinated, and now I have to get them completed stat, because the rumor is that the NYPD have gotten a new laminator and we're soon going to have to report for recertification. I don't really need a press pass. I got one the first time as a First Amendment project, because I felt bloggers deserved credentials just like the mainstream media did, and the NYPD was refusing to issue them to us. But after we hired a lawyer and went through the process in 2012, they amended the rules, and there's no longer a constitutional issue at stake.
I rarely use my credential—maybe three or four times a year when I work as a backup reporter or photographer when everyone else is sick or busy, and for that I could use one of the "reserve cards" that Gothamist is issued in its own name, but Chung is adamant that I need to set a good example for the rest of the staff on the importance of "hard-core journalism", and frankly I'm a little scared of her, so here I am, back on the trail collecting clips.
This event is a particularly inauspicious start. The LMSCC is on the 28th floor of a drab post-war building on Lower Broadway. It looks like a Trump building gone to seed- lots of gold colored brass looking worn. Press is massed in the lobby, waiting for Bratton and Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, to appear. The two men have apparently taken the subway, so they're late and the journalists are getting bored and antsy. The British press people are discussing Jon Stewart, who they report is a "very nice man."
A small woman from one of the radio stations is talking to someone on the phone about how she destroyed a laptop computer (possibly a coffee spill, but I'm not sure), and has to return to the radio station to file, so her clip might be late. A few reporters are discussing the Brooklyn DA's 2 p.m. press conference that will address indictment and arrest of the NYPD officer involved in the Akai Gurley shooting, but the consensus is that Bratton "won't say shit" about it at this event.
Bratton and Boris appear, igniting the usual scrum. The TV camera guys are always burly Teamster types, and they tend to muscle everyone else out of the first row at any press conference, but I've found if you get down low you can often get a good blog post picture between their torsos. This sometimes causes them to launch into an "hey I'm STANDIN here" invective, but it seems reasonably good natured, and today they don't even give me that, and I'm able to grab a few shots of the two "principals" (as they are called by their massed press people) while they pause at the entrance for a few seconds. Shortly thereafter they are whisked upstairs, while the assembled journalists are made to wait by the elevators until the room is "cleared," whatever that means. Several journalists try to sneak up with the principals, but seem to get foiled by watchful NYPD people.
The elevators open on to the hallway outside the LMSCC, which is surprisingly drab, given the recency of its deployment and technological focus. Dropped ceilings with that government office foam tile stuff, and fluorescent lights. The main room, which I take to be the "situation room" I've heard other reporters talk about, looks like a small theater space- three levels of risers with desks and computers, and an open area in front for the performance. Today, there's a podium set up, and the video screens that cover the entire front wall are set up with a sophisticated "incident map" on one side and small video feed tiles on the other, covering several dozen locations with labels like "PL-21 North Pool SE Corner (W)" and "Chrysler SW 3rd Ave".
More waiting ensues. The group here is larger because of the British Press presence, but British reporters seem to look a lot like American reporters—slightly hungover, a little bloated, with a very specific world weary air that I've never seen anywhere else. The camera guys are using a reporter from one of the Chinese outlets (I'm guessing here, because she was speaking to her colleague in Chinese) to test their sound and white balance levels. I am sitting in front but I've been through this enough to dodge when they ask me to do it, because I've found they tend to make fun of you while you're helping them. Today they're reasonably courteous—"you're a sweetheart"—at least until they ask me and the Chinese reporter if we could "get down like 12 inches" in our seats, which we attempt to do by sort of sliding lower. Though the press conference is only about thirty minutes long, I am soon in a great deal of pain from holding this position.
I mention the LMSCC looks like a theater (or theatre, for the British press), because the jaded journalists back in our office refer to events like this as "security theater", and I think it's a nice analogy and make sure to note it in the little reporters notebook I've brought for this occasion. At these sorts of things, the NYPD or mayor or whichever politician is speaking makes a big deal of how much technology they have at their disposal and how they're doing everything in their power to keep us safe, and then always dodges any questions from the press about privacy concerns, costs of the system (which are actually classified, rolled up into the NYPD's opaque 'anti-terrorism' budget in the city reports), or the efficacy of the system. Today will be no different. This event is actually a little more stage-managed than most, as Boris is now running late, and the DCPI guys announce that they'll be taking only "on-topic" questions before he leaves, when Bratton will stay to respond to more local concerns.
[There's a reason for this performance, of course. Bill de Blasio, like all liberal politicians, is terrified of seeming weak on crime or on terrorism, because that's a common way liberal mayors get ejected from office. This event is part of his over-compensation strategy. It's not that I doubt the mayor is concerned about terrorism- no one who was here on 9/11 is going to object to buying more protection from dirty bombs or chemical weapons or stuff like that. It's just that these particular tactics seem to combine both an ostentatiousness designed more for the media's consumption than for actual protection, and a curious lack of data that shows that cameras and geiger counters are a better use of money than (just for instance) more police on the streets or intelligence officers or other things which are less media-friendly. It's worth noting that "The Ring of Steel" surveillance system in London has not prevented terrorist attacks there in 2005, 2007 and 2013.]
As we wait, I spent some time meditating on whether being forced to report on official events like these just to get an NYPD press pass makes me complicit in this system, consider what George Orwell would have made of these technologies, and read a few pages from a David Foster Wallace book of essays ("Consider the Lobster"- excellent so far), and then decide that rather than issue the typical AP style press conference report for my clip-book, I'll perform this assignment in a more hysterically realist DFW-type voice, and maybe even make it into a whole 8-part series (potential title: "Clowning for Clips"), if I can slip it by the editors, which will likely never happen. [ED: Let's see how this performs]
While I am daydreaming the reporters at the end of the row are attempting to get online, which is difficult, because the center has surprisingly bad cell reception. The main press aide for the NYPD comes over and tells one of the reporters how to get on—I overhear the wifi password. It is (unbelievably) "P@ssword1". I include it here so that the center, which again, is supposedly at the very heart of the NYPD's intelligence apparatus, is forced to change it to something a little safer.
I also attempt to figure out who the reporters on either side of me are, but you have to be very discreet about doing this, because nothing is more awkward than the "so who are you writing for?" conversation, particularly when you're an interloper and the reporters are grizzled city beat types. The guy next to me appears to be from the Wall Street Journal or the Times, though. I notice other reporters also doing this sly "glance around" thing, but the only people talking are the camera guys, who are mostly shooting the shit and giving each other a hard time, and occasionally checking that the levels are still good.
Eventually the press conference begins. Boris, who literally appears to be an actor doing a sendup of bloated English oafishness, and whose hair can only be described as "Donald Trump on a bad day," gives a little compare and contrast on the differences between the NYPD's system and the one in his own city. The main difference appears to be that the London system does not have any geiger counters, and though it has many, many more cameras ("You're a movie star when you walk down the street!") the cameras are operated by different government and private agencies, and not "integrated" as well as they are in New York. I pause to consider whether reporting this information would be aiding the terrorists, but decide that if it's true, London is in much deeper trouble than I thought and maybe we should get the word out so people there can take appropriate precautions.
Boris seems a little drunk to me—he launches into a few minute long speech about how the NYPD can spot bags left on the street, using the same technology they use to spot if you have an uncounted item in your bag at self-checkout at "Tesco" but it's a little discombobulated and Bratton is starting to look uncomfortable. Suddenly, Boris' loud enunciation of "DIRTY BOMB" causes me to startle out of my seat, but no one appears to notice.
The only thing he said that really surprised me was that "thousands of NYPD officers are walking around with Geiger counters," which I didn't realize was true, and seems a bit terrifying. In answer to a British reporter's question, Boris seems quite excited that these Geiger counters, when fed into the "integrated" HQ, could allow them to track down criminals who poison people with radiation, which would have apparently been useful during the Alexander Litvinenko case, which seems to once again be in the British news, but I'm not clear on whether this is something that happens a lot or not in London.
Bratton also makes some remarks—the most interesting is that it's been nine-and-a-half days without a homicide in NYC. It's not clear if this is particularly newsworthy to the British press, as the homicide rate in London is approximately half the one we have in New York, and a week without murders is probably quite ordinary there. Bratton also pointed out that yesterday there were no stabbings either, in addition to no murders, but there was a similar lack of reaction from the room. Tough crowd.
After concluding remarks, Boris and his team left, followed by some of the British journalists- but a number stayed behind to file their reports using the free P@ssword1 wifi while Bratton addressed some current NYPD policing issues. The NYC press perked up and seemed a great deal more animated than the British had been when they had their turn with the mayor. Bratton is obviously very well practiced in his relations with the press, however—so careful that he avoided any utterance which could be construed as a newsworthy fact. So in light of that, briefly, their questions were about:
a) The Waze app: some luddite police officials are asking Google to shut down the Waze service they paid a billion dollars for in 2013, on account of it giving the locations of police officers away to the public. Bratton offers no opinion on whether Google should do this, but says Jessica Tisch, the billionaire heiress who is his Deputy Commissioner of Information and Technology, will get him up to speed on the issue soon. She is standing off stage and nods seriously.
b) Arrest of NYPD officer this morning in Gurley case: "We'll see as it goes forward. We have a system... I'm not going to question it." He notes that an administrative investigation is also taking place, and reminds one of the reporters who asks about it that both officers have been on modified duty, without guns, for quite some time, and that the officer who did the shooting is actually staying home from work. The main fact revealed (at least to me, as I hadn't read the tabloids this morning) is that the officer turned himself in at the 84th precinct on Tillary Street in Downtown Brooklyn, and was then taken to court for booking.
c) Sergeant's arrest for raping a 13-year-old girl: Bratton called this a "very unfortunate circumstance" and said the NYPD is working closely with the DA on the case, and he was getting a briefing from Internal Affairs this very afternoon.
d) Chokeholds and Firearms policy: Chris Robbins asked me to ask about chokeholds, because he's writing a story following up on the Times article about the Civilian Complaint Review Board substantiating more chokehold cases this year than in prior years. Bratton essentially said "we're looking at that also," as part of his answer to a reporter about whether they're revisiting the "walking around with your firearm unholstered during vertical patrols of the projects" policy. His basic point was that the department wants to do more mentoring so young cops aren't walking around unprepared and scared out of their minds, to the point that they need to keep their guns drawn and accidentally shoot people.
e) Etc: A question about the City Council Speaker's plan to have more arrests treated as violations or desk appearance tickets—Bratton said that was similar to many initiatives he had going, including one to treat fare jumping as a violation as long as you had ID, no warrants out, and no weapon in your pockets. Another question about testing smart cars, which the department has apparently bought nine of, because they might be cheaper than the three wheel scooters currently used. Bratton called them "midget cars," which got a small laugh.
Jen Chung and Chris Robbins were both on me pretty hard to ask a question about why the DCPI laminator is still broken, given the NYPD apparently has money for Minority Report style future-tech, but I made it clear before I left the office that I would under no circumstances ask this question, because it was embarrassing, and I have a minor social anxiety about being embarrassed in front of journalists that has basically prevented me from asking questions at press events since we started Gothamist, but also from talking to journalists on the phone or at media parties or really in any circumstance except one in which they are employed by Gothamist (this isn't the only reason I avoid media parties; many journalists are actually kind of jerks.) Chung suggested that I drink "a couple of shots" of tequila from the office bar before going over, as she has observed me doing this to fortify myself before the rare media gatherings I am forced to attend, but I make a policy of not day-drinking, and besides, it still probably wouldn't have been enough.
After the press conference, the journalists assembled piled out into the elevator, which briefly opened on the 23rd floor, which is apparently where the Pro Publica offices are located—that's a fancy not-for-profit journalism initiative funded by some sub-prime mortgage billionaires. In stark contrast to the depressing 28th floor hallway, it was clad in rich looking dark woods with an expensive marble floor. I don't think any of the other media workers in the elevator even noticed—most of them were headed over to Brooklyn for the 2 p.m. DA presser and were late—but I was struck by the distance between the day-to-day work of journalism, which so often seems to involve being either cold from waiting outside for someone to start speaking or hot from waiting inside for someone to start speaking, or just generally depressing from having to stenograph the highlights of press conferences where literally no news is made, to the look of that hallway, and I wondered if it's a different journalistic experience in a place like that.
Then I got back on the train and returned to the office, where Chung gleefully informed me, "Only seven more to go!"
N.B. If you're interested in what a mainstream newspaper makes of a news event like this, The Wall Street Journal's piece is a good guide.