Leonard Levitt, dogged chronicler of NYPD and power struggles inside One Police Plaza, dead at 79
By JOHN ANNESE
May 18, 2020
Former Newsday reporter Leonard Levitt leaves Superior Court in Stamford, Conn., Wednesday, April 25, 2007, where he attended the Michael Skakel appeal hearing. Skakel, who was convicted in 2002 in the 1975 killing of Martha Moxley.
Legendary news reporter and award-winning author Leonard “Lenny” Levitt, who for decades was a thorn in the side of the NYPD, died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 79.
Levitt, who lived in Stamford, Conn., wrote a column for Newsday called “One Police Plaza” from 1995 to 2005 that took a deep dive into the inner workings of the NYPD, then continued that column on his blog, NYPD Confidential.
Levitt’s take-no-prisoners column tackled police corruption, personality clashes and incompetence within the department and, when it warranted, media coverage of the NYPD.
“It became a very iconoclastic piece of journalism. He sort of set the standard for covering the NYPD inside out,” said his colleague and friend, longtime Newsday reporter Anthony DeStefano.
Levitt graduated from Dartmouth College and the Columbia School of Journalism, and reported for the Associated Press, the Detroit News and Time Magazine. He also took a job as the investigations editor of the New York Post.
He joined Newsday in the 1980s, DeStefano recalled, covering the police, the judiciary and law enforcement.
He started working in “the shack” – the press offices in One Police Plaza – as one of the paper’s first reporters there as Newsday was launching its now-defunct New York Newsday.
Levitt covered “the politics of the department, the backstabbing that was going on, the machinations,” DeStefano said. “He made some friends, and he made some enemies.”
In 2007, the NYPD, then led by Commissioner Ray Kelly, yanked Levitt’s press credentials, prompting him to sue for information on how the department decides who gets a press pass and who doesn’t.
“During the dark Giuliani years when this column criticized the man who had fired him as commissioner in 1994, Kelly — then in Washington in the Clinton administration —would say, ’You’re the only reporter in New York with balls,’" Levitt wrote shortly after the decision. “That all changed when Kelly returned as commissioner in 2002.”
Levitt surmised that Kelly was unhappy that one of his columns questioned the departure of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism head. In 2005, the commissioner assigned a handler to follow him around police headquarters, Levitt said.
In 2006, he was barred from entering One Police Plaza and dubbed a “security threat” – at least until the New York Civil Liberties Union got involved.
“They had a photograph of him at the front desk, announcing that he was persona non grata at 1PP,” Chris Dunn of the NYCLU recalled. “He was targeted because he was Lenny Levitt and because of what he wrote, and that became completely clear when we challenged it and they almost immediately backed down.”
Dunn worked with Levitt for decades, including when he sued to get access to Kelly’s calendar.
“There’s a whole generation of reporters who revere Lenny because he never backed down, and he almost always was right,” he said.
Levitt wrote six books, including the Edgar Award-winning “Conviction,“ about the decades long quest for justice in the 1975 killing of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. Michael Skakel, a member of the Kennedy clan, was convicted of her murder in 2002, though the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned that conviction in 2018.
“He always said he didn’t solve the case but he prevented it from being stolen,” DeStefano recalled. “Lenny was like a dog with a bone. He just wouldn’t surrender.”
Levitt continued writing columns up until the end of 2019, when he questioned whether NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan was being frozen out by Commissioner Dermot Shea.
He’s survived by his wife, Susan, two children and a grandchild.