The Mayor Had a Photo of a Fallen Officer. Was His Story About It True?

In Mayor Eric Adams’s first month in office, he was confronted with a tragic crisis: the deaths of two New York City police officers who were responding to a domestic disturbance in Harlem.

Mr. Adams, a former police captain who campaigned as a Democratic crime fighter, quickly sought to humanize the killings. The loss of the officers, he said, reminded him of the 1987 line-of-duty death of a friend, Officer Robert Venable.

“I still think about Robert,” Mr. Adams said at a news conference at City Hall. “I keep a picture of Robert in my wallet.”

A week later, Mr. Adams posed for a portrait in his office, holding a wallet-size photo of Officer Venable after The New York Times had requested to see it. Mr. Adams has since repeated the moving anecdote in media interviews and at a Police Academy ceremony last June, where he again displayed Officer Venable’s picture.

But the weathered photo of Officer Venable had not actually spent decades in the mayor’s wallet. It had been created by employees in the mayor’s office in the days after Mr. Adams claimed to have been carrying it in his wallet.

The employees were instructed to create a photo of Officer Venable, according to a person familiar with the request. A picture of the officer was found on Google; it was printed in black-and-white and made to look worn as if the mayor had been carrying it for some time, including by splashing some coffee on it, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Two former City Hall aides, who asked not to be identified, said they were informed about the manipulated photo last year, not long after it was created.

Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, did not dispute that Mr. Adams had shown a photo to The Times and at the police ceremony that had been recently created by a City Hall aide.

Mr. Levy, however, insisted that Mr. Adams had carried a photo of Officer Venable for decades, and provided the names of several former transit police colleagues who said in interviews that Mr. Adams and Officer Venable had indeed been friends.

The person who directly ordered the altered photo to be created, according to the person who was familiar with the matter, said she had no comment when reached by The Times. She said she had been told to direct all media inquiries to Mr. Levy.

Mr. Levy criticized The Times for what he characterized as a “campaign to paint the mayor as a liar.”

“The Times’s efforts to attack the mayor here would be laughable if it were not so utterly offensive,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

After releasing the statement, Mr. Levy ignored repeated requests to elaborate about the authenticity of the photo. He also did not respond to questions about whether the photo was made to look old in part by staining it with coffee.

As mayor, Mr. Adams frequently shares personal recollections, helping him connect to his working-class base. Many of his stories are difficult to verify, and at times, he has been caught stretching the truth. The mayor, for example, said he was vegan before being forced to admit that he eats fish; he said that a story he told in a 2019 commencement address about intimidating a neighbor was true, but acknowledged it did not happen to him.

More recently, Mr. Adams’s claims to have sold his stake in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn were once again contradicted by recent financial disclosure forms that show he still retains ownership.

But in his retelling of carrying the photo of Officer Venable, the mayor and his staff went a step further. City resources were used to create a photo that Mr. Adams surely knew had not been in his possession for decades; city employees were pressured to get involved.

At a medal day ceremony in June 2022 at the Police Academy, Mr. Adams held up the photo of Officer Venable and called him “one of my closest friends.”Credit…New York City Mayor’s Office

In the initial interview with The Times in his office, Mr. Adams said that the photo was “always in my wallet until my wallet got too bulky,” and added that he more recently had been keeping it in a money clip.

“He was a very dear friend and it keeps me committed,” he said.

Mr. Adams brought up the photo in at least two television interviews last April, as he discussed his grief following the deaths of the officers in Harlem, Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera.

“I understand the pain,” Mr. Adams said on News 12. “I carry around a picture of Robert Venable, my close friend, that was shot several years ago during my early days of police, and I always have Robert’s picture. The pain never dissipates.”

At the June 2022 Medal Day ceremony at the Police Academy, he again held up Officer Venable’s photo, referring to him again as “one of my closest friends.”

“Robert died when he was shot in the head when responding to a job,” the mayor said. “We were going away that week and going on vacation together.”

Officer Venable’s daughter, Januari Venable, who was 8 when her father was killed, said that she did not recall ever meeting Mr. Adams until this year. Ms. Venable, now 44, said in an interview in early spring that she was surprised to learn that the mayor was carrying a picture of her father.

“All I can say is that as far as being in his wallet or not, the fact that people still think of my dad all these years later — whatever the meaning behind it — it makes me thankful that he’s not being forgotten,” Ms. Venable said.

After Officer Venable’s death, his daughter, Januari, center, was raised by her grandparents, Enoch and Cordelia Fuller.Credit…David Handschuh/New York Daily News, via Getty Images

Five police officers who knew Mr. Adams and Officer Venable in the early 1980s did recall that the men were friends. Randolph Blenman, a former police officer, said the two worked together and socialized.

“There weren’t many young Black officers,” he said. “Those of us who came on after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s — we basically stuck together.”

Benjamin Andrews said that he was Mr. Adams’s partner on the transit force, and they were friends with Mr. Venable: “We worked together, we partied together.” Cliff Hollingsworth, another officer, said he remembered Mr. Adams “taking Robert’s death very personally.”

Januari Venable said that she wanted her father to be remembered for giving back to the community and setting up basketball hoops at a local park in Brooklyn so that children had a place to play. The park was later named for him.

Ms. Venable, who lived with her grandparents after her father’s death, said that if the mayor stretched the truth about carrying the photo in his wallet, it was possible that he had good intentions “to drive a point home — there’s too much gun violence.”

Mr. Adams said he began carrying Officer Venable’s photo inside a money clip, removing it from his wallet because it had gotten “too bulky.” Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

This was not the first time that Mr. Adams or his campaign provided a document to The Times that raised questions of authenticity. During the height of the 2021 mayoral race, the campaign told The Times it would provide a contract showing that a property Mr. Adams co-owned in Brooklyn was transferred to its other owner, Sylvia Cowan, in 2007. A week later, the campaign provided the “official document transferring ownership” — a letter to Ms. Cowan, not notarized, bearing Mr. Adams’s signature but not hers, dated Feb. 9, 2007.

An email obtained by The Times that Ms. Cowan sent in May 2021 to the co-op board said that Mr. Adams had agreed to transfer ownership to her — 14 years after the letter provided by the campaign. Mr. Adams listed the apartment on his financial disclosure forms released this year, and a spokesman for the mayor said the process of transferring it was still “underway.”

Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group, said that she had known the mayor for years. She said she did not know of the photo’s provenance, but did not understand why he would risk embellishing the truth around it.

“Stretching the truth in this context does question an elected official’s credibility, and that might be a problem for voters,” she said. “I don’t see why he does it. He doesn’t need to do it, so why does he do it?”

Mr. Venable’s niece, Meredith Benson, when first contacted by The Times, said that she would be disappointed if the mayor was not being truthful about the photo. But in a recent phone call, she said she was more concerned about Mr. Adams’s management of the city and said, “I support him 100 percent.”

Ms. Benson, who was a teenager when her uncle died, remembered visits Mr. Adams made to the family after Officer Venable’s death, his kindness to her grandmother, and his driving the family to events. She said she had not seen Mr. Adams in roughly three decades until this year.

How the mayor handled the photo, she added, was “not going to diminish the spirit and impact my uncle had.”

In April, Januari Venable said she finally met the mayor at a breakfast on Long Island in honor of her father and another officer who was killed in the line of duty. Ms. Venable invited Mr. Adams and said she was glad that he came. They did not discuss the photo.

“He played with my son,” she said, “and he told my son that his grandpa was a great guy.”

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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