On September 11, 2001, Tom Constantine lost three
who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center.
John O'Neill had just retired from the FBI where he was a pioneer in confronting Osama bin Laden and his al Quaeda terrorist network. He had just started a new job as chief of security for the WTC complex.
Fred Marrone was Director of Security and Chief of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This was Fred's second career. He had earlier served with the New Jersey State Police, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel.
Charles M. Mills -- known as Charlie to one and all -- was serving as chief of revenue crimes investigations for the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. His distinguished earlier career was with the New York City Transit Police, from which he retired to take on particularly challenging assignments first as Police Commissioner of the City of Schenectady and later as Public Safety Commissioner for the City of Troy. During his service as the former, Charlie and Tom Constantine developed a close working relationship that redounded to the benefit of the City of Schenectady in a big way. On the eve of Tom's nomination to head the DEA in November 1993, the two presided over the culmination of an undercover investigation into street level drug trafficking in Schenectady that resulted in a spectacular drug raid -- in fact, the very event that was dubbed " Constantine's Circus ."
All three men lost their lives while supervising the evacuation and rescue efforts that were underway as the two towers collapsed to the ground.
On November 17, Schenectady Mayor Albert Jurczynski and the people of the city held a memorial service for Charlie that was attended by his wife Maie and five children. Tom Constantine was there paying tribute to his old friend. And the next day, he received the following e-mail :
(Note: the "lawyer from Buffalo was none other than Vince Tobia, of course.)
(Another note: the "practicing and preaching reference" is to a certain discussion that has emerged concerning Tom's lack of experience in the practice of community-oriented policing -- of which Charlie was a gifted practitioner and which is the heart and soul of the policing model envisioned by the Patten Commission for the Province of Northern Ireland.)
Subj: A Celestial Message for Tom
Date: 11/18/01 5:04:05 PM Eastern Standard Time
From: St. Charlie Mills@aol.com
To: TAC COPS@aol.com
Jeez, Tom. It took my breath away how fast I got a set of wings up here. There's some lawyer from Buffalo -- yes, a lawyer -- who filed all the paperwork in advance. But I gotta tell you that there's a whole lot of people here just now who are just getting the hang of using them. Whoa! Look out! Watch where you're going! O, it's just John O'Neill and Fred Morrone buzzing by. They want me to say "Hi" to you.
Now I understand you've been troubled and vexed because the question has been asked: "Just when was it that he ever practiced what he is now preaching?" You know what I mean. That community-oriented policing stuff. O, and let me add that now that I can read minds, the guy asking the question is only doing it to put you on the spot so you'll come up with a real good answer -- which he knows you can, of course.
Well, the answer to that question, old friend, is: "After hearing the right parable in the right church, of course."
And here it is, especially for you, hot off the heavenly press:
O, and thanks for being there yesterday.
A BEAUTY BORN
On a summer morning in the year 2000, the phone rang. It was a woman who wanted my fax number. I didn’t recognize her name and thought she might be reaching the wrong party. She said no, that I had written to her a year earlier and the item she would be faxing related to the subject of the letter.
Moments later, the fax delivered an announcement for a memorial tribute to be held a few days later at Erie County Hall in Buffalo. It was to honor the memory of the late Vincent Tobia, a prominent and colorful Buffalo lawyer who had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack on the 7th of July after working over the holiday weekend preparing for a big case the year before. He was only 60 years old.
I had only met Vince once. It was at a fundraising event we organized at Fleet Bank offices in Buffalo in May 1993. It was to help finance the creation of the Gray Rider, a monument that stands today before the New York State Police Academy.
Vince had served for a decade as a New York State Trooper beginning in 1962. He was a veteran of the Attica prison uprising of September 1971. He complained ever after of a back injury he sustained in jumping from the wall into the prison yard during the operation to retake the prison from rioting inmates.
In his ten years with the State Police, he earned a fine reputation as a highly effective undercover investigator and indeed, had decided to go to law school after successfully posing as a crooked lawyer and infiltrating a crooked law firm. The man was quite a scamp.
The woman who reached out to me, Dorothy Ann Roth, was confidential secretary to one of the Supreme Court Justices in Buffalo. Vince had been her lawyer in a private matter, but as a prominent member of the Erie County Bar, they had interacted professionally over many years. Vince's primary client was the Buffalo Bills football team and his many court battles on behalf of the team and its owners were the stuff of local legal legend. He certainly had made an impression on Dorothy because when I met her a few days later, she was wearing a little brooch into which she had set a picture of him.
Dorothy and I connected because I had read a moving tribute she wrote after his death that appeared on the editorial page of The Buffalo News. I sent copies of her piece to a number of Vince's friends among the alumni of the New York State Police.
At that time, I wrote to her to share a funny story I had learned about Vince's early years as a Trooper. He and his best friend, Tom Constantine, had been newly appointed to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and assigned to an Erie County substation. The old-timers decided to occupy these two fresh-faced eager beavers with an investigation into a continuing rash of thefts of ski equipment from a local ski area.
Vince and Tom -- in a pattern that was to continue with both of them for life -- succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation and recovered a ridiculously large number of skis -- more than the State Police had storage space for and mostly no longer wanted by the skiers from whom they had been stolen.
Now, in my letter to Dorothy, I took a little literary license and tacked on a ficticious sequel in which years later, Tom, now head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, called Vince one day to bemoan the fact that he and his agents had seized so much heroin and cocaine, that he had no place to put it all. To that, Vince responds: "Why don't you pile all the f***ing s**t up around the f***ing Washington Monument and sell f***ing lift tickets to the f***ing tourists and then rent out all them f***ing skis!" Which will serve to introduce you to something else Vince was famous for -- his unprintable idiolect.
One other such call -- one that really happened -- that I have been able to document came when Tom had flown down to Colombia -- violent heartland of the world's cocaine empire. At some point, the phone rang in Vince's office. It was Tom, calling to share his impressions of the visit. "I was s****ing bricks the whole time," said the stern, unflappable, stone-faced man later to be styled by the BBC as "The tough cop from America's mean streets."
Yes, these two guys were the greatest of friends which is saying a lot because Tom is a very intensely competitive, abrasive, driven, remote and hugely ambitious character who does not, to my observation have many close friends. For that reason, it made a big impression on me when I called Tom to set up his appearance at the 1993 Gray Rider fund-raiser that the instant I mentioned Vince's name he said abruptly and matter-of-factly: "Vince Tobia -- my closest friend in life."
So, it was to my mind very poignantly sad that only a few days after Tom wrapped up his distinguished career as a law enforcement officer with his retirement from the DEA and finally had time to get together to play golf or go fishing with Vince that his closest friend in life should suddenly and unexpectedly die while working over the holiday weekend to get ready for a big case.
My attendance at the memorial service in Buffalo the year after Vince's death was both to pay respect to someone who was so dear to Tom and to meet some of the people who knew them both and could tell me more about the nature of their friendship. I learned a whole lot more than I ever would have expected. Like most deep knowledge, it came in a flash of insight.
Tom is an extraordinarily inflexible man. He considers himself to be decisive. You go to discuss something with him and you find that his mind is already quite made up -- end of discussion. I've often heard it said: "Around here, there's only one way -- Tom's way;" or, as I like to put it, "You can move heaven and earth, but you can't move Tom." That means he's very forceful and domineering, but he's also bound by hierarchy, regulation, protocol, convention and so forth. I once described him vividly to a Canadian colleague. "He sounds insufferable!" was her reaction. He's impressive at holding and projecting authority, but he's also highly deferential to it. He is not the man to buck the system or make waves. If the boat seems to be rocking, it's really that every oar is in the water and every back into every oar.
Vince was quite a different sort of animal. Profane, salty, irreverent, fun-loving and volcanically passionate. There are famous stories about his eruptions in the course of litigation. And he was very much the man to speak his mind. And how!
The story that gave me my deepest insight into the relationship between these two involved them being instructed on an investigative assignment by a superior officer. At the conclusion, the officer asked if there were any questions to be asked or clarifications needed. Vince turned to Tom and said: "Now, Tom, if the Captain said anything that you don't agree with or you think he's wrong, speak up now, because I don't want to have to listen to you b****ing about it for the next three weeks." Yes, Vince had a way of really putting poor Tom on the spot. They tell me he did it quite regularly -- and sometimes even in certain social situations where Tom's resulting discomfiture was excruciating in the extreme.
The story struck me and I thought about it on the long drive home from Buffalo. I sensed that Vince had deep knowledge and great respect for Tom's intelligence, his character and his sincerity -- all that was and is best in him. And he made it the first obligation of his friendship to bring those qualities out to their fullest, in this instance by compensating for Tom's inflexible deference to authority by embarrassing him into speaking his mind. What a great friend he was to Tom. You should have heard with what gusto they hyped one another in front of an audience of prominent Buffalo business leaders the night we all appeared for our Gray Rider fund-raiser. Tom boomed: "Vince Tobia -- a great lawyer and a great cop."
Vince left the State Police and began his successful career as a lawyer in Buffalo. Tom rose through every rank in the State Police (a slave to hierarchy, you know), eventually to serve seven years as Superintendent and then moving on to head the DEA. In those positions, his personality traits served him well, because both of the organizations he served were huge, paramilitary, hierarchical organizations with very focused missions -- at least the State Police became more narrowly focused during Tom's administration because of the nation's fixation on illegal drugs. He was very successful in both assignments. None of this surprised those who knew him. As Colonel Ed Culhane, former Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police once told me: "We could tell that man had a battle plan in his head from day one."
All of a sudden, in May 2000, the news emerged that Tom was coming out of retirement to serve as Oversight Commissioner for the historic reform of police service in Northern Ireland under the terms of the Good Friday Peace Accord and more particularly the Patten Commission that had been set up under that agreement to come up with a plan for transforming the controversial Royal Ulster Constabulary into a new Police Service of Northern Ireland. At the very essence of the Patten Commission's plan was the transformation of a huge, paramilitary, hierarchical organization into something quite different -- a community-oriented, problem-solving police service that would build a whole new kind of relationship with the community it serves. Tom's job is to certify every stage of the gradual evolution of this transformation.
This assignment was called by The Buffalo News "Constantine's Greatest Challenge." Indeed it is. As in times past it was said that the Queen, if handed it, was obligated to sign her own death warrant, Tom is now obligated to certify the transformation of an organizational culture quite similar to the kind in which he did thrive and succeed over a period of a full thirty nine years, into something in which he would have been very much out of place.
His greatest challenge indeed.
I have absolute faith that he's up to it. Let us just hope that he has a friend like Vince who knows him and cares for him enough to help bring out the qualities we know he has within him to succeed in his task. This time, however, he doesn't need someone to embarrass him into speaking his mind, as Vince used to do. What he needs to be helped to do is to change.
I think he does have such a friend. You see, yesterday afternoon, Tom sat quietly in the back of a chapel in Schenectady, New York where we heard eulogized a much-loved cop named Charlie Mills who served as Police Commissioner there for four years in the early 1990s. Charlie left an unforgettable impression on that community because of the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into its life. Schenectady had and has a lot of problems -- some believe it was Pandora's hometown -- but when Charlie was around, it had hope. The problems did not really go away while he was there -- his victories were modest. But the people did come together in a way that had not happened before. In a place like Northern Ireland, that would be a huge victory, wouldn't it?
Charlie lost his life on September 11 in the destruction of the World Trade Center. He was supervising the evacuation of employees of the state agency for which he was working at the time.
Charlie Mills is the perfect exemplar of the kind on policing contemplated by the Patten Commission. I, for one, am glad that Tom had the opportunity yesterday to be reminded of Charlie and the qualities that made him such a great cop. I know that he was profoundly touched and moved. I think he now has in Charlie a model to follow all the way through just as he stuck to his career "battle plan" all those years that he was coming up through the ranks.
In 1916, William Butler Yeats wrote in his famous poem "1916" -- a date as indellible to the Irish as December 7 1941 or September 11 2001 are to Americans -- of the Easter Rising that for the people of Ireland, the world had been "changed utterly" and "a terrible beauty" was born of that event.
Yesterday as I watched Tom walking away from the chapel, alone and deep in thought among the swirling fallen leaves, I knew that once again, out of something terrible -- the tragedy that took Charlie from us -- a beauty had been born. Only this time, the beauty itself is not a terrible one.
18 November 2001
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