NEW YORK — When word leaked out last year that New York police were showing an inflammatory movie about Muslims to trainees, news reporters flipped open their notebooks, picked up their phones and hit the speed dial for a man named Paul Browne.
As the spokesman for America's largest police force, Deputy Police Commissioner Browne is one of the most important – yet largely unknown – newsmakers around. From Occupy Wall Street to the arrest of the International Monetary Fund chief, he's at the center of some of the globe's biggest stories.
Lately, though, a series of flip-flops, hedges and retractions about the Muslim movie and other issues has made Browne the target of scathing columns in the local press and angry denunciations by community activists. Browne also denied the existence of a secret surveillance program targeting Muslims even though The Associated Press later obtained documents detailing its work.
Critics say he oversees a system that withholds public records, plays favorites with the local press and promotes Kelly and the NYPD with a truth-compromising fervor.
"There are too many instances where he has blatantly lied about what is going on with the NYPD to the taxpayers who pay his salary," City Councilman Jumaane Williams recently told reporters. "Once, perhaps you could say it was a mistake. Twice, oops, I did it again. Three, four, five times: There's no excuse."
Defenders say Browne is a trustworthy, tireless and, when needed, combative spokesman for the NYPD.
"Anybody that knows Paul Browne knows he gives you the facts always as he knows them at the time, and later on, if he finds the facts that he gave you are wrong, he's not shy about standing up and correcting himself," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday. "He is as good as you could have representing the city or representing the police department. We're lucky to have him."
Asked about the criticism on Friday, Browne told the AP: "Certain people have axes to grind; I understand that. It comes with the territory."
The 62-year-old Browne first came to the NYPD in 1990 with a resume that included jobs as a newspaper reporter covering politics in Albany, N.Y., and as a top aide for U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
He worked for Kelly during Kelly's brief stint as police commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s. He then followed Kelly to Washington, where his boss held a top position at U.S. Department of Treasury and later headed the U.S. Customs Service.
Browne's current job can be a pressure-cooker: As deputy commissioner for public information, he runs the busiest press office of any police department in the country. It's staffed around the clock by several police officers and civilian employees who field a constant stream of requests from media around the world each day.
"You're talking about a huge agency," said Susan Braunstein, a professor of communications at Barry University who studies law enforcement public relations. "They're not dealing with three questions a day; they're dealing with thousands."
Browne's office issues email summaries of the biggest criminal cases of the day – homicides, assaults, robberies and fatal traffic accidents. But except in rare cases, his office refuses to release police reports, mug shots, arrest logs, 911 recordings and other documents. Any citizen wanting these documents must file a Freedom of Information Law request, which can take months and possibly a court fight.
"I think the NYPD was a trend leader in attempting to control the message," said David Krajicek, a former police reporter in New York and vice president of Criminal Justice Journalists, an association of reporters.
The NYPD policy is far more restrictive than that of other police forces operating under the same state public-records statutes, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"They just sort of ignore it with impunity. The attitude is sort of, `Oh, you want us to do something about it? Sue us,'" Dalglish said.
At the same time, the NYPD and its 36,000 officers have gained vast new powers to spy on Americans because of a 2003 court order. And the department has thousands of new cameras positioned around the city. Civil rights groups are demanding more oversight.
"Paul Browne has been the face of what feels like a systematic effort to keep the public in the dark about what the NYPD is doing," said Donna Lieberman, chief executive of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The latest flap involves the police department's use of the movie "The Third Jihad." The movie – featuring sound bites from interviews with Kelly, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and others – was funded by the conservative Clarion Fund, and Muslims say it paints them as terrorists.
When the Village Voice newspaper first learned of the screenings a year ago, Browne called it a "wacky movie" and initially denied it was shown to trainees, the Voice said. Later Browne said it was shown "a couple of times" to a small number of officers. When asked why Kelly appeared in the movie, Browne said he thought the interview had been lifted from another source.
None of that was true.
This month the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, after a yearlong fight, obtained internal police documents about the movie that say "The Third Jihad" was shown on a continuous loop for about three months on the sidelines of counterterrorism training for nearly 1,500 officers in Brooklyn. The producer of the film also said this month that Kelly sat for an exclusive, 90-minute interview, contradicting Browne.
Muslim groups accused Browne of attempting a cover-up. Browne said he simply forgot about the interview.
"This goes back five years," Browne said last week. "There's some suggestion that, `Gee, I suddenly remembered.' I didn't suddenly remember – I went through five years of emails to try and figure out did I get a request by this guy who's connected with the foundation."
But critics note the gaffe follows other high-profile contradictions.
In August, an AP reporter asked Browne about the Demographics Unit, a team of undercover police officers charged with mapping and monitoring ethnic neighborhoods. Browne said the unit did not exist. He also denied that the NYPD dispatched plainclothes officers to hang out in cafes, hookah bars and bookstores to eavesdrop on patrons.
The AP later obtained police documents detailing the Demographics Unit and its use of "rakers" to spy on ethnic communities. Other documents say the NYPD infiltrated student groups at local colleges and monitored their Internet activity.
On Friday, an unapologetic Browne said the NYPD only "carefully and lawfully" follows leads of terror threats with selective undercover investigations.
Associated Press Writer Samantha Gross contributed to this report.