Timoney Has Made a Career of Cleaning Up Police Messes


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.

“It’s the way he’s always done it,” said John Gallagher, a former Harlem cop who now works for the Justice Department in New Mexico. “He’d show up in Harlem at midnight on Christmas Eve and he’d tell us, ‘I know you gotta be out there, but the city’s with you and so am I.’ You don’t know what that means to a street officer.”

Timoney seemed to be everywhere at once in Philadelphia, on the nightly news, scooting around the city with a squad of bike police. His final act as commissioner last New Year’s Eve, he recalls with a snort, was arresting a gun-wielding suspect charged with attempted murder.

There is an element of calculation in his identification with officers on the lowest rung, Timoney acknowledges, “but I’m serious about it. I firmly believe I shouldn’t ask them to do something I don’t want to do myself.”


Police training experts and academics who have long observed Timoney say his ability to personify the street cop while spearheading reforms would be key attributes in Los Angeles.

“He lives and breathes the way street officers think,” said Jack Greene, dean of Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice, who has analyzed both the Philadelphia and Los Angeles police reform efforts. “Given the police culture in L.A., there’s a real need for that.”

“But he also knows how to build coalitions with disparate interest groups,” Greene said. “New York, where he came up, is about as complex as that gets, and Philadelphia gave him the opportunity to put what he learned into practice.”

Los Angeles officials have privately described their keen interest in Timoney as stemming from his reputation as a nationally recognized law enforcement official. They are impressed by his reputation as a public servant who is affable and approachable, willing to listen to differing views and then implement far-reaching changes.

Mayor James K. Hahn’s chief of staff, Tim McOsker, flew to Philadelphia recently to meet with officials and activists who had worked with Timoney. McOsker came away from the trip impressed by raves from city leaders and community groups, according to several people he later briefed.

“Commissioner Timoney had great rapport with Philadelphia’s ethnic communities,” said Frank Keel, a spokesman for Mayor Street. “He did a great job in bridging the Police Department with the African American community, the Latino community. He was tireless, he showed up at every community forum you could imagine, and he had the good sense to promote top-quality minority officers.”

But if Timoney was able to deftly knit alliances, he was less successful in winning over his home base. Street cops give him only lukewarm respect after his four-year stewardship.

While several Philadelphia officers and other department insiders interviewed recently said they had found some of Timoney’s reforms helpful, they also expressed resentment of what they saw as his heavy-handed toughening of the department’s Internal Affairs investigations of police misconduct. Others said they had grown disillusioned with Timoney’s image as a “glory hound who traveled in the black-tie set.”


“The rank and file felt he was becoming too big for his britches,” said Ellen Ceisler, an independent civilian oversight official who has tangled with Timoney at times, but also sees him as “just what the LAPD needs.”

In South Philadelphia, near a baseball field where a scoreboard bears the face and name of Daniel Faulkner, a lionized cop killed in a notorious 1981 shootout with black activist Mumia Abu Jamal, a balding police sergeant shrugged at the mention of his former boss.

“He did some good things, yeah,” said the sergeant, who declined to give his name. “But not all of them worked. And he loved that spotlight, more than he loved us, I’ll say that.”

Grudging respect, Timoney said, is about the best a successful police executive can expect from below while contending with the treacherous cross-currents of public life.

“You should respect a top cop, but not idolize him,” Timoney said. He said he often told officers “that your job is to go out and lock up the bad guys, and my job is to keep you out of trouble. Sometimes it’s going to tick you off, but that’s the way it’s gotta be.”

Disillusionment spread, Timoney contends, as a result of his bitter four-year war with the Fraternal Order of Police, a formidable police union that represents almost every city officer up to the highest ranks. The union successfully used a statewide arbitration system to blunt Timoney’s attempts to discipline officers as he saw fit.

Soon after arriving as commissioner in 1998, Timoney met with union leaders in a series of private meetings aimed at compromises to improve police education and streamline the handling of disciplinary cases. But Timoney soon bridled at vitriolic union magazine “cheap shots” that promised to send him “packing north of 95"--a reference to the highway to New York.

“He projects a great image to the community and he’s got a lot of good ideas, but he’s weak on follow-through,” said Richard Costello, a Philadelphia police captain who is stepping down as union president.

Timoney is now blunt about his tangles with the union. “What I was trying to do was to break up the union into separate unions,” he said, adding: “Of course they’re going to resent that.”

The commissioner moved quickly in Philadelphia to shore up an ineffective Internal Affairs unit. He promoted the use of anonymous undercover officers to sniff out misconduct in the city’s station houses and ordered investigators to tape their interviews. He banned cops from using blackjacks, a weapon prized by street officers since the days of the late Frank Rizzo, the department’s legendary tough-guy commissioner who later served as mayor.

But Timoney did not always welcome the efforts of others to help clean up his department, said Ceisler. Timoney counters that his efforts to satisfy a court-mandated federal consent decree showed his willingness to open up his department to outsiders, satisfying both a district court judge and impressing then-Atty. Gen. Janet Reno’s Justice Department regulators.

“It’ll be the same,” he added, in contending with the wide-reaching consent decree that governs many of the LAPD’s operations. “The thing is to get out of the consent decree by fixing what’s broken, reporting to the judge in objective fashion and reducing the lawsuits and the settlement of those lawsuits.”

His efforts at straightening his own house appeared to be working until Timoney was caught up in a mini-scandal in March 1998 over a decision he had made early in his tenure. Timoney had suspended a homicide captain, James J. Brady, for 20 days for driving drunk--a fireable offense that had allegedly been covered up by another police official.

According to Keel, Mayor Street, when he learned of the matter, was “not pleased by what he saw as a slap on the wrist. After strong dialogue, Timoney stepped forward and did the right thing,” transferring Brady out of homicide. Brady later resigned.

Timoney explained that his initial decision to merely suspend Brady came during a period early in his tenure when he was confronted by a huge backlog of disciplinary cases. He and his deputies had to sift through “boxes and boxes” of 500 cases. “I didn’t know Brady and had no reason to protect him,” Timoney said.

Ceisler countered that many of the leftover files were “minor cases for officers who had missed court. This was totally different because it involved the most serious kind of case against a high-ranking officer.”

After he was confronted by Street, Timoney changed his mind. He insists the two men agreed in private and the mayor continued to back him up despite press reports that Street had lost confidence in him.

“When I made the decision I didn’t think it was a bad decision, and on reflection, I probably should have just fired the guy,” Timoney now says.

“I don’t believe it damaged Timoney’s credibility at City Hall,” Keel said. “The general consensus was that he’d erred on the side of protecting his fellow officer.... At his core, John Timoney’s just a cop. For this city, he was a great one.”


Times staff writer Tina Daunt contributed to this story.


In-Depth Looks at the Short List for Next Chief

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Police Commission concluded a five-month search for the next chief of the LAPD by sending Mayor James K. Hahn the names of three finalists: William Bratton, former commissioner of the New York Police Department; John Timoney, former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department; and Art Lopez, a veteran of the LAPD who now serves as chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

Today, The Times begins a series of profiles on those three men. Today’s installment looks at Timoney. Lopez will be profiled Monday and Bratton will be featured Tuesday. To see the articles on the Internet, go to www



Age: 54

Career: Former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department; also first deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department under William Bratton. Currently chief executive of Beau Dietl & Associates, a New York City security firm.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; master’s degree in American history from Fordham University; master’s in urban planning from Hunter College; graduate, Police Management Institute of Columbia University.

Personal: Married, two grown children.