Is Ray Kelly's appointment of three outsiders to investigate alleged police downgrading of crime statistics "the real deal," as he himself might say?
Or is this his way of heading off an official commission, one armed with the power to issue subpoenas and grant immunity to witnesses, one with a paid staff and a formal imprimatur to get to the bottom of what may well be widespread NYPD corruption under Kelly's own nose?
With those powers, the Knapp Commission, formed by Mayor John Lindsay 40 years ago, exposed corruption and reformed the police culture of accepted widespread, systemic payoffs.
Ditto the Mollen Commission, formed by Mayor David Dinkins in 1992, which exposed drug-related corruption by 36 officers on the midnight tour of Harlem's 30th precinct - what came to be known as the Dirty Thirty.
Not that Mayor Michael Bloomberg would, at least at this point, consider appointing a commission with teeth and a real bite.
Since becoming mayor in 2002, Bloomberg has been brain-dead when it comes to supervising the NYPD, granting Kelly more power with less accountability than any police commissioner in city history.
Kelly's handpicked commission of three former federal prosecutors has no staff, no subpoena powers and no way to compel current and former high-ranking police officers to testify.
It apparently lacks access to the 911 tapes needed to determine if the police discouraged or even refused to take citizens' complains, as many people have alleged.
Nonetheless, forming his own panel, toothless or not, indicates that Kelly recognizes he's facing a crisis of credibility and confidence.
Limited as his commission's powers may be, his call for outsiders to investigate the very crime statistics he has refused to turn over in the past represents a 180 degree turnabout.
Remember, this is the same police commissioner who for the past nine years has resisted all attempts at outside scrutiny and has made the NYPD less transparent to the public than during the darkest days of Rudy Giuliani.
This is the same commissioner who six years ago even refused to turn over crime statistics to the chairman of an anti-corruption city commission.
Let's examine what happened at that seminal moment so that we can appreciate the extent of Kelly's about face.
By March 2004, less than three years after 9/11, Kelly had cultivated an image as the lone man standing between the city and another terrorist attack, saying that the FBI couldn't be trusted to protect New York.
That image, and aggressive spinning by his police spokesman, neutralized both a Newsday report about low-balling crime in the Bronx's 50th precinct and claims by the two largest police unions that officers throughout the city were under pressure to downgrade felonies to misdemeanors.
"Our own members tell us that they have been conditioned to write crime complaints to misdemeanors rather than felonies because of the abuse they receive from superior officers worried about their careers," said PBA president Pat Lynch and Sergeant's Benevolent head Ed Mullins in a joint statement.
"It is a truth widely known by members of the department and now we have to see if the police commissioner has the courage to face the truth and do what is right for the city of New York." (That entire release of Mar. 23, 2004 can be found on the PBA website.)
Kelly's response? Denial.
His spokesman, Paul Browne, called Newsday's reporting "inventions."
Referring to the PBA, Browne said that it was "baffling that a police union would assert that its own members are failing to suppress crime as effectively as we know they are."
Browne convinced the mainstream media that Lynch's charges stemmed from nothing more than a dispute between the department and the PBA over the forced transfer of a 50th precinct union delegate.
No one bothered to ask why, if that were true, the sergeant's union seconded the allegations.
When Mark Pomerantz, the chairman of the Mayor's Commission to Combat Police Corruption, tried to get to the bottom of the controversy by obtaining precinct crime reports, Kelly refused to cooperate.
Testifying before the City Council's Public Safety Committee in 2005, Pomerantz said that Kelly had decided that the alleged crime-doctoring was "administrative," not "criminal," and therefore wouldn't hand over the statistics.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg took his usual hands-off-Kelly position and remained silent. Pomerantz said he had no choice but to resign.
Peter Vallone Jr., the go-along to get-along head of the Public Safety Committee, said to the Village Voice's Paul Moses of the unions' claims, "I have a lot of sources in the police department and I have not heard this is a problem. This is a charge that seems to happen during union negotiations."
Today, the times have changed.
As Kelly's missteps, both personal and professional, have been exposed, New Yorkers are demanding an accountability that had been absent years before.
Viewed initially as an ascetic straight-shooter whose ambitions stopped at running the NYPD, Kelly has become a man about town, consorting with rock stars and celebs, reveling among the rich and famous.
He has used the non-profit Police Foundation to pay $20,000 of personal expenses at the Harvard Club and persuaded the foundation to spend $400,000 for a public relations consultant who in actuality works to further Kelly's political -- possibly mayoral -- ambitions.
His go-it-alone terrorism-fighting apparatus jeopardized the most serious terrorism case since 9/11: that of Colorado-based Najibullah Zazi, who in 2009 drove to New York to plant bombs in the subway.
Without informing the FBI, which was tracking Zazi as he drove cross-country to New York, Kelly's Intelligence Division, under his handpicked Deputy Commissioner David Cohen, contacted one of its own informants, who tipped off Zazi that law enforcement was watching him. Fortunately, an FBI wiretap picked up the call and saved the day.
A year ago, new questions about the accuracy of department's crime statistics surfaced through the research of two criminologists, Eli Silverman and John Eterno.
They reported that 100 retired captains and higher-ranking officers said they were aware of "ethically inappropriate" changes to crime complaints in the major category of felonies.
As he did with Lynch, spokesman Browne tried to discredit Silverman and Eterno, suggesting that many respondents in their survey might have been repeating what they had heard from news reports about the "relatively rare instances that gained notoriety."
"Anonymously supplied answers are problematic because it's hard to assess whether they originate from retirees who felt they were unfairly denied promotion or have some other ax to grind," Browne added.
At the same time, whistle-blower police officer Adrian Schoolcraft surfaced, with secret audio tapes supporting his claim that 81st precinct commanders ordered cops to downgrade crimes.
Kelly's response? A posse of a dozen police officers pulled Schoolcraft out of his apartment and dragged him in handcuffs to Jamaica Hospital, which kept him in its psychiatric ward for six days.
Vindicating Schoolcraft, the department subsequently accused the 81st precinct commander, Inspector Steven Mauriello, and four other officers of downgrading crimes.
Last month, Deputy Chief Michael Marino, who had led the police posse to Schoolcraft's apartment, was transferred to Staten Island.
Yet neither Kelly nor Silent Mayor Mike has said one word about Schoolcraft's forced stay in a mental ward. Neither a word of explanation nor an apology.
Meanwhile Councilman Vallone, sensing which way the wind is blowing, is singing a different tune.
"I believe that the statistics were in fact being manipulated," he said last week. "I have spoken to many current and former police officers who unfortunately refused to go on the record but who have corroborated that fact. And I've spoken to many civilians whose valid complaints were not accepted by the police department."
Finally, there is the New York Times.
As late as August 2009, it was fawning over Kelly and his wardrobe. "I wear mostly Charvet ... Some Brioni, an occasional Kiton but mostly Charvet."
But in the past 18 months the paper's attitude has changed.
The Times was the first to report Silverman's and Eterno's survey of captains and above last February.
It has questioned Kelly's need of a data bank for stop-and-frisk arrests, making a mockery of his explanations.
Kelly's lobbying notwithstanding, its reporting led Governor David Paterson to sign legislation eliminating the data bank for people stopped and frisked but not charged with a crime.
The Times also reported that since becoming police commissioner in 2002, Kelly had failed to publicly issue statistics on misdemeanor crimes.
The department's response? Spokesman Browne blamed a "computer glitch," then last month posted the statistics on the NYPD's website for the first time.
Then on Dec. 22, the Times filed suit against the department, saying Kelly had routinely violated state law requiring agencies to provide information to the press and the public.
As the paper's vice president and assistant general counsel David McCraw said, "We've become increasingly concerned over the last two years about a growing lack of transparency at the N.Y.P.D."
BERMUDA MIKE. More than Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg's reputation has recently taken a nosedive. His Katrina moment came when he was apparently sunning himself in Bermuda when the Christmas Eve blizzard struck, leaving no one in charge to run the city. Now, people are demanding answers from him like never before.
Is his hands-off attitude towards the police department particular to Ray Kelly? Or as indicated by his snow-removal bungle, is this the way he runs an entire city?
RUNNIN' SCARED NO LONGER. We note with sorrow the departures of Wayne Barrett and Tom Robbins from the Village Voice.
There are no reporters in this burg quite like these two dudes. Just ask Rudy Giuliani or Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes.
Among their many reporting coups, Barrett discovered that Giuliani's father was a mob enforcer and leg-breaker, and that he served time in prison under an assumed name.
Robbins came forward to stop yet another apparent miscarriage of justice in Brooklyn. Years before, while researching a book with Gangland columnist Jerry Capeci, he had tape-recorded mob moll Linda Schiro.
Relying on Schiro's testimony (though apparently not fully debriefing her), Hynes indicted former FBI agent Lindley DeVecchio, charging him with leaking law enforcement secrets to the mob, leading to four murders.
Hearing Schiro testify to the opposite of what she had told him and Capeci, Robbins came forward with his long ago tape. Hynes was forced to drop the case against DeVecchio.
Without Barrett and Robbins, the Voice, sadly, is even less of a shadow of its former self. But there's good news for them, as Your Humble Servant has discovered: for reporters of their caliber, there's a life beyond newspapers.