John Timoney had dropped off toys at his church and was handing his doorman a holiday gift when someone snatched a wallet from a woman on her way to do some Christmas shopping.
So Miami’s police chief signaled her to get into his unmarked car. The suspect was spotted and Timoney did what came naturally: He jumped out of his car and tackled the guy and made the arrest.
Fiery, passionate, sometimes belligerent and often challenging, John Timoney was the very epitome of the tough Irish cop. He grew up in New York City and rose through its policing ranks. He transformed departments he led in Philadelphia and Miami with a set of policies that drove civil liberties groups crazy, but greatly decreased crime and police use of force.
A towering figure in the national law enforcement community who learned under legendary lawman William Bratton, Timoney overcame obstacles almost everywhere he went. The day he was sworn into office in Miami, 11 of his troops were on trial for concocting evidence and planting guns during several shootings. Seven would be convicted.
Within a few years Timoney had transformed the department. Crime plummeted and Miami police were lauded for not firing a weapon at anyone for almost two years.
But the one obstacle Timoney couldn’t overcome, cancer, took his life Tuesday. Timoney, 68, was surrounded by friends and family when he finally lost the battle with the insidious disease.
“The world has lost a great man and a law enforcement giant,” said Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss, a former major in Miami who considers Timoney his mentor. “But his legacy will live on forever. Today is a sad one, but the world was better because he was in it.”
Bratton, the two-time police commissioner of the nation’s largest department in New York, called Timoney a “fighter” and a “consumate leader.” The recently retired commissioner said his decision to promote Timoney to one of the top slots in NYPD in 1993 was a historical move that was “reflective of the confidence I had in him.”
Bratton said his Boston accent coupled with Timoney’s Irish dialect often created comical conversations between the two.
“I didn’t understand half of what he was saying,” Bratton said. “I’m sure he didn’t understand me, either.”
News of Timoney’s passing prompted vignettes and words of sympathy from around the globe. Many came from proteges who had moved on to top jobs in police departments around the country. Former staffers under Timoney in Miami are splintered all over the country, running departments in Missouri, North Carolina and several in South Florida.
“I am highly honored and forever will be to have been part of Chief Timoney's staff,” said Dave Magnusson, police chief in Havelock, N.C., who made the jump after being named to Timoney’s executive staff in Miami. “He was the proverbial medicine the MPD [Miami police department] needed at the right time.”
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, the most significant police policy institute in the nation, called Timoney’s time in Miami, “remarkable.”
From Croatia, where he is on vacation, Wexler noted how immediately after Timoney left Miami in 2010, there were a series of police-involved shootings under a new chief who had reversed the department’s course. The shootings drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Wexler said Timoney hung in circles far beyond policing. He was friends with author Tom Wolfe, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle. A recent get well message on Timoney’s phone came from Vice President Joe Biden.
“His legacy is that leadership matters,” said Wexler.
Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who convinced Timoney to move south in 2003, was at the former chief’s bedside when he passed away.
“We became very close. He was like a brother,” said Diaz. “Hiring him was probably the best decision I made in eight years.”
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said Timoney’s contributions to the department were “only surpassed by the dedicated service he provided our community.”
Though Timoney’s assimilation in the U.S. was typical of an Irish immigrant — his rise in police status was legendary.
He moved with his family from Ireland to New York City when he was 13. Living in the tough Washington Heights neighborhood, he changed his name from Sean to John just to fit in. After high school, he did some clerical work for the NYPD and was hired as a beat cop in 1969.
He later would become the city’s youngest ever four-star chief and was named deputy commissioner under Bratton. When Bratton left New York, Timoney moved on to Philadelphia where he was named police commissioner in 1997. There, he began new use-of-force training techniques that transformed the corruption-plagued department. But those same policies also received blowback from the ACLU after the heavy use of non-lethal force and arrest of hundreds during the Republican National Convention in 2000.
As the Free Trade Area of the Americas neared in Miami in 2003 and with large protests expected, Diaz called on Timoney. To deal with the swelling crowds, the chief implemented the Miami Model which consisted of multiple arrests, heavily-armed undercover cops, embedded police and intelligence gathering.
Again, hundreds were arrested and again the ACLU and other groups complained and filed lawsuits. Most of the arrests in Philadelphia and Miami were eventually tossed. In 2010, when a new administration took over in Miami, Timoney was forced out. He’s been doing consulting work, since. Some have resulted in the transformation of police departments in the Northeast, though most of his consulting took place overseas.
Now, in Miami, much of Timoney’s old policies are back in place. Among them: Officers can not shoot into a moving vehicle unless someone in the vehicle is pointing a gun at them. Police-involved shootings in the city are again down. Wexler, the PERF director, said Timoney is the ultimate teacher on how to control use-of-force in a police department.
“He was the police chief that other chiefs called when they had a problem,” said Wexler. “He was bigger than life.”