The NYPD: Image Versus Substance

Sometimes, the NYPD appears to be more about image than substance.

That was certainly the case Friday as First Deputy Commissioner George Grasso, a respected, 30-year veteran, took the long walk out of Police Plaza.

The "walkout" -- where a retiring VIP walks between two rows of white-gloved officers who applaud and/or salute -- is a ritual for top department officials.

Grasso, who for the past eight years served as First Dep., looked like a conquering hero as he walked out the building across the plaza to City Hall, to be sworn in as a Brooklyn Criminal Court judge.

But there is a hole in this picture. While in theory the second most important position in the department, the First Deputy's job is largely symbolic.

The job is ill-defined, with powers as wide or narrow as each police commissioner determines.

Bernie Kerik, a third-grade detective unfamiliar with the complicated machinery of the department when Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed him police commissioner in 2000, relied on his first deputy, Joe Dunne, who had been Chief of the Department and who many felt should have been appointed in Kerik's stead.

Commissioner Ray Kelly, on the other hand, a 40-year department veteran, knows the job as well as anyone.

In his two tours as commissioner he gave virtually no responsibility to either of his first deputies -- John Pritchard, who served in Kelly's first term, or Grasso.

Kelly further diminished the position of First Deputy when he removed its primary function -- the departmental disciplinary process -- and created a new civilian position of Deputy Commissioner for the Department Advocate's Office, reporting to Kelly and bypassing the First Dep's office.

Now let's turn to Grasso, a decent, thoughtful, hardworking guy, who above all has been loyal to the department.

Like all top NYPD officials, his rise to the top has been a slog.

Like Kelly, he attended St. John's law school while serving in the NYPD. For years he worked as one of many lawyers in the department's legal bureau. When the top job -- the Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs -- opened up under Commissioner Howard Safir, he was appointed on the recommendation of Safir's first deputy, Tony Simonetti.

It wasn't easy working as the department's top attorney for the testy Safir who, as he indicated in a 1991 interview on 60 Minutes, had little regard for the law.

"I'm sick and tired of dealing with 'no' lawyers, Safir often said. "I want a 'yes' lawyer."

He got one in Grasso, who defended Safir's positions that were at best misguided, at worst, insane.

None was worse than Safir's firing of Deputy Commissioner for Equal Employment Opportunity Sandra Marsh, then the department's only black deputy commissioner.

Safir ordered her to rewrite her report on a Staten Island sexual scandal that criticized both the borough commander and his deputy. When Marsh refused, Safir fired her.

She sued, charging that Grasso had repeatedly interrupted her when she presented her report, questioning whether she understood that she was implicating police chiefs with 30-year careers.

She won a $1 million settlement from the city.

The payment came just as Safir was to give 22 hours of court-ordered testimony after failing to show up for a previous deposition and offering no explanation for his absence.

When Kelly selected Grasso as his first deputy in 2002, many believed it was largely because of his loyalty to the department.

For the next eight years as first deputy, he had virtually nothing to do.

"He was extremely frustrated," said a former top department official. "They never tapped into his talents, which were far greater than what he was asked to do. That is much of the reason he is leaving. With Bloomberg's re-election to a third term, he did not want to do this for another four years."

Typical of the man, he never uttered a word of public complaint or criticism.

THE SUCCESSOR. The Times reported Friday that Chief of Personnel Rafael PIneiro will succeed Grasso. For the Times to print that with such certainty indicates it came from Kelly's top aide, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne.

Pineiro fills a number of Kelly's needs. Kelly can claim he appointed the first Hispanic to a job previously held by two blacks and even a woman.

Like Grasso, Pineiro is a lawyer, whose rise to the top has also been a slog.

Back in the 1990s as Bronx Borough commander, he made the mistake of not personally supervising the first night of a jammed-pack Pink Floyd summer concert. Chief of Patrol Louie Anemone arrived and began personally directing traffic while shouting "Where's my chief?"

Although Pineiro appeared for the concert's second night, he was too late. He was bounced to the Criminal Justice Bureau, where he was warehoused for two years with former Chief of Detectives Charles Reuther, another Anemone casualty.

Appointing Pineiro also fulfills another of Kelly's unwritten criteria: promoting those dissed by the Giuliani administration.

The real reason for Pineiro's transfer to the Criminal Justice Bureau might well have been that as Bronx Borough commander, Giuliani felt he was too close to then Bronx borough president and future mayoral rival Fernando Ferrer.

BRATTON VS. KELLY REDUX? Guess who attended Grasso's walkout Friday at Police Plaza? Former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

Guess who didn't attend? Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Is there a connection?

On the one hand, Kelly quit a 2006 international anti-terrorism conference sponsored by the Manhattan Institute at the Roosevelt Hotel when he learned that Bratton was participating -- and held a rival event the same day at Police Plaza.

On the other hand, Kelly is conscientious about attending the retirement events of top brass, even making appearances for people he dislikes, such as Kerik.

At Kerik's 2002 farewell dinner, Kelly sat outside the main dining room but did not venture inside.

Three months ago, he spent 45 seconds at the retirement dinner of Michael Scagnelli, whom he also dislikes.

Why Kelly was a no-show at Grasso's walkout no one knows or is saying.

Chief factotum Paul Browne did attend but seemed too preoccupied with his cell phone to his ear to provide an answer. When this reporter approached him, he grunted and turned away.

However, Grasso may have inadvertently revealed the answer. He paid homage to Bratton, though not by name, by citing last year's record low homicide figure of 471, and saying that Kelly was "building on a foundation."

No surprise who laid that foundation.