A great tribute to a great man by Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of PERF
Dear PERF Members, On Tuesday afternoon, John J. Miller, a longtime Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, exited his 13th floor offices at One Police Plaza and asked the staff who toil each day telling the department’s story to gather around. They put down their phones and leaned on their desks. Then, in perfectly crafted sentences – delivered without written notes – John did what he’s been doing since he was a kid reporter chasing police stories for local TV: He broke news. Before anyone could catch their breath, he was off and running, and the room in Lower Manhattan filled with applause. In tandem with the announcement to his staff in the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, John blasted out an email to the entire NYPD. It was titled, “An Honor & Privilege.” “I have always said, if I could keep this job forever, I would,” he wrote. “Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the time has come to rise to other challenges and opportunities.” John Miller – ever elegant, always present; thoughtful and smart; one of nature’s true originals – is leaving the NYPD. In police stations and newsrooms from New York to Washington and beyond, the reaction is likely the same: “Big loss!” How to describe this person of unmatched success? The son of a newspaper columnist, he carved his own path to the heights of two of this country’s most competitive and volatile professions: journalism and law enforcement. A man who was equally comfortable whispering into the ear of Barbara Walters at ABC or Robert Mueller at the FBI or teaching a roomful of cops about media relations. A person who, with one quick comment, could put people at ease, whether striding the aisles at a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden (where he knew all the ushers, food vendors, and other workers) or stepping to a bank of TV cameras and microphones in Times Square after a terrorist attack. One of my favorite John Miller stories involved the famous 1973 hostage situation at John and Al’s Sporting Goods store in Brooklyn. A botched robbery of guns and ammunition resulted in a three-day standoff. John was just a teenager at the time, and when he heard about the incident, he wanted to go to the scene and “report” on it. The only problem, he wasn’t a reporter at the time, and he needed press credentials to get anywhere near the scene. So, John called the NYPD and told them he needed credentials for “a reporter he was working for.” He then rode his bicycle to NYPD Headquarters and told the clerk he was picking up credentials for “Mr. Miller.” Credentials in hand, he headed to the scene. Of course, John did go on to be a reporter – and a damn good one. He worked for two decades at local TV stations in New York City covering breaking news, which often involved crime, mobsters, and the police. From there, he did stints on the national news desks at NBC, ABC, and CBS. While hardly his only notable scoop, John is often singled out for his 1998 interview of Osama bin Laden at his remote mountaintop camp in southern Afghanistan. He was the last Western reporter to interview bin Laden. This interview would come back to haunt him, in a funny way, several years later. John was going through his background investigation for a top job at the FBI, the Assistant Director of Public Affairs. The investigator told John that with his impeccable background there wouldn’t be a problem, “unless there is a picture somewhere of you with Osama bin Laden.” I first met John Miller shortly after I arrived at PERF. I was in North Andover, Mass., where PERF was holding the Senior Management Institute for Police (SMIP). After spending some time observing the program, a lightbulb went off. While I recognized the importance of the academic faculty’s offerings, I also saw the urgent need to expose prospective chiefs to practical challenges. And one of the biggest of those challenges was working with the news media. I had heard about Jerry Nachman, an award-winning journalist and a character right out of Central Casting. He was tough as nails, seasoned, cigar-chomping, relentless in the pursuit of facts, and oozing of New York City. He had a reputation for getting to the bottom of every story, and, importantly, he had a great sense of humor. I was able to convince Jerry to come to North Andover to teach at SMIP. Guess who he brought with him? A young sidekick named John Miller. Watching those two together was as good as it gets. Students left the room with practical and useful tools and enduring communications skills. I know that as the decades passed – and as some of our SMIP graduates took leadership positions and faced armies of reporters in critical moments to explain complex matters and foster credibility – it was the words of Jerry Nachman and John Miller they called upon. Today, John has a new partner at SMIP, Bill Bratton. And together, they help our SMIP students understand the complex world of policing, terrorism, and communications. They’re sharing their wisdom and experience with 400 up-and-coming police executives this summer in Boston, as they’ve done for several years now.
John Miller addressing SMIP students. It was Bill Bratton who brought this tough investigative reporter, who had chased John Gotti around New York City, into the NYPD in the early 1990s to lead the public information team. I suspect that appointment caused quite a stir at the time. A decade later, when Bratton was chief of the LAPD, he created an even bigger stir when he named John head of Criminal Intelligence and Counterterrorism. A “civilian” head of Counterterrorism? You can imagine the heads turning on that one. John decided he would go through the LAPD Academy so he could earn sworn police officer status. It wasn’t necessary, but it was typical of John Miller to go above and beyond when doing his job. He headed up intelligence and counterterrorism at both the LAPD and the NYPD, and today, he is recognized as perhaps the single most knowledgeable and creative thinker and leader on counterterrorism in the country. Think of just about any major event of recent times – in New York City or around the world – and John has either been there or been asked to offer his perspective. NYPD commanders tell of him showing up at all hours of the night at the farthest reaches of the city – cigar in one hand, radio in another, and ready to help. His name is often captured in the official preliminary reports as having been on the scene. He knows the importance of taking in events firsthand – seeing them, smelling them, feeling them, knowing them. John practiced that as a reporter and as a police executive. When John was in the NYPD in the 1990s, he and John Timoney, who was the Chief of Department, worked closely together. Both raced to crime scenes in the dark of the night, and in politically charged situations each was frustrated when the facts didn’t flow fast enough. In those cases, Timoney would turn to Miller and say, “Johnny, it’s not a problem of us getting the information, it’s a problem with the information itself.” Timoney called Miller “a bird of rare plumage” because it is difficult to adequately describe John Miller. He is a thought leader. He is someone who has a gift for listening, an open mind, and lets you see him puzzle through ideas up close. He is confident and, from a distance, seemingly brash. But up close, he is as thoughtful and generous as they come. Few people will match the contributions he has made throughout his improbable and remarkable career. To the policing profession, he has provided one of the most valuable gifts there is: the ability to translate our complex work into simple, understandable, and human terms. This is a critical skill in this fast-moving digital age, when communicating accurate and understandable information is essential – and sometimes even a matter of life and death. John … thank you for your service and your friendship, and for all you have done for PERF. And thank you for all you have done for police departments across the country and around the world. You are a national treasure. Best wishes in your next chapter. If it’s anything like the last one, it will be a great read!