Law & the Courts

Ray Kelly, Gotham’s Guardian

(Spencer Platt/Getty)
The longtime commissioner oversaw a golden age of urban policing.

Not all government institutions tend inexorably toward decline. Corrupt and ineffective for much of its history, the New York Police Department has within the past two decades become quite possibly the premier domestic public-safety agency in the nation. Former police commissioner Ray Kelly’s memoir, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City, is partly an attempt to take credit for this administrative miracle — credit that Kelly richly deserves. Between 1990 and 2013, New York City went from accounting for about 10 percent of American homicides (more than three times its share of the U.S. population) to only 2.4 percent (slightly less than its share). Kelly led the NYPD for more than half this span, under Mayors David Dinkins and Michael Bloomberg. Kelly pushed the murder rate down to record lows while also, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, broadening the NYPD’s mission to encompass fighting terrorism in addition to street crime. He is the longest-serving police commissioner in city history.

For Kelly, a career cop from a working-class family of Irish extraction, there was little in his background to suggest an architect of new modes and orders in American policing. His childhood years were spent on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during its descent into the miserable conditions depicted in Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. After Ray was mugged at the age of eight in Central Park, his family moved to Queens, “the 1950s Upper West Side version of the suburbs.” He attended parochial school and married another Irish-American, herself the daughter of a cop. They put down roots on Long Island, the residential community of choice for generations of white-ethnic members of the NYPD.

After serving as a platoon leader in Vietnam, Kelly hit the streets of New York, where levels of crime and disorder were rising to unprecedented heights. “I was finally home from the Marine Corps but suddenly back on a battlefield.” Kelly worked in several of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and East Harlem, and in a variety of special units, including Manhattan South Public Morals. During undercover assignments in the fleshpots of Times Square, he had the opportunity of “witnessing acts the nuns at St. Gregory’s had never warned me about.”

He gained the inside track to commissioner when he quelled a race riot in Crown Heights. Though now one of Brooklyn’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, Crown Heights in 1991 was a powder keg of poverty and ethnic resentment. One August evening of that year, an Orthodox Jew driving the last car in a motorcade ran a red or yellow light (“depending on whom you believe”), hit another car, spun onto the sidewalk, and pinned two young black children against an iron window grate. One of the children died, and a Jewish graduate student was promptly stabbed and beaten to death in retaliation. Then followed three days of further assaults, looting, and vandalism, much of it inflicted on the local Jewish community. Visits by Mayor Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown, whose car was pelted with rocks, failed to calm tensions. At the time, Kelly had no direct responsibility in his position as first deputy commissioner. But he was eventually tasked with ending the violence — partly because of his past experience with the neighborhood — and he managed to do so in short order with the help of a mounted unit. Crown Heights could thus be described, almost literally, as Ray Kelly’s man-on-horseback moment.

Kelly argues that a lack of initiative is what allowed Crown Heights to spin out of control. “The police appeared to be holding back. They were not moving aggressively into the crowds. . . . The biggest danger, police commanders may have calculated, was overreacting on the street. So they hardly reacted at all.” Kelly recognized instinctively the importance of proactive policing and making cops responsible for maintaining order as well as dealing with “serious” crime. When he was appointed police commissioner in October 1992, he began focusing on low-level quality-of-life nuisances. It was under Kelly and Mayor Dinkins that the city government made a priority of addressing the notorious squeegee men (men who stood at street corners with pails of water and squeegees, aggressively washing windshields so as to shake down the drivers for tips). Crime began to drop, but not quickly enough to save the Dinkins mayoralty. When Rudy Giuliani was elected New York’s 107th mayor in 1993, Kelly found himself out of a job.

He made much of his subsequent wilderness years. He directed a multinational effort to monitor and reform Haiti’s police force; he was an under secretary for enforcement for the U.S. Treasury Department, commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, and chief of security at Bear Stearns, the post at which he was standing watch on September 11, 2001. Kelly can barely express the frustration he felt over “watching the drama unfold from the nosebleed seats” on that epochal day. But his urge to contribute to the fight against Islamic terrorism would soon be amply fulfilled. Following a timely endorsement of Michael Bloomberg in the 2001 mayoral election, and Bloomberg’s win, Kelly was appointed for a second and much longer tour as police commissioner. He focused on the “three Cs”: counterterrorism, crime fighting, and community relations.

If you look at a chart of New York’s murder rate over the past quarter-century, the 2002–2013 reduction seems to follow naturally from that of 1990–2001. But Kelly rightly notes that, when Mayor Bloomberg took office in January 2002, it was not at all the consensus opinion that yet safer days lay ahead. After all, 649 people were murdered in New York in 2001, the year before Kelly took command. “As far as I was concerned, 649 wasn’t close to low enough. Why not 550? Why not 0?” Kelly taught New Yorkers to expect more from their police department. Should 2015 end with 100 more murders than there were in 2014, the political consequences would be devastating for the de Blasio administration. But such a 30 percent increase would still leave New York with a murder count 33 percent lower than in 2001.

Kelly left an even greater legacy in counterterrorism. He was commissioner in 1993, when the first attack on the World Trade Center took place, an experience that taught him many useful lessons, such as not to rely on the FBI. Vigilance raises interesting questions about federalism, as Kelly insists that city authorities must gather their own intelligence about terrorism threats both particular (Brooklyn-based jihadists) and general (could the 2005 attacks on London’s transit system be replicated in New York?). Kelly constructed New York City’s counterterrorism strategy and administrative apparatus out of whole cloth. He created a counterterrorism bureau within the NYPD, expanded the intelligence division, and increased the NYPD’s influence over the interagency Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was originally designed in the 1980s to address violent black nationalists and had long been controlled by the FBI. Vigilance recounts 16 specific attempted attacks on New York, most of which the NYPD played a crucial role in foiling.

Kelly’s legacy in the area of easing tensions between cops and the communities they patrol is mixed, though through little fault of his own. Since, when fewer crimes are committed, fewer people are sent to jail, New York City’s total inmate population fell by 13 percent under Kelly. Police officers’ use of force against civilians declined. During Bloomberg’s three terms, the NYPD averaged 20 subjects shot and injured by police officers per year, a 50 percent drop from the Giuliani administration’s average of 40. As Kelly notes, he continued to register approval ratings above 70 percent during his final year in office. There was even discussion about his running for mayor in 2013, though Vigilance does not shed any light on those rumors.

In that 2013 race to succeed Bloomberg, the most anti-police candidate in the field, Bill de Blasio, won both the Democratic primary and the general election by impressive margins. Kelly caught heavy flak from de Blasio for the NYPD’s use of the “stop, question, and frisk” policing tactic. Street stops had increased significantly under Kelly (though he claims this was partly due to better record-keeping), which put the NYPD on a collision course with U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin. In August 2013, four months before Bloomberg left office, Scheindlin ruled in Floyd v. City of New York that the NYPD’s use of stop, question, and frisk amounted to “indirect racial profiling” and demanded numerous corrective measures, including an independent monitor to oversee the NYPD’s reform of the procedure. Though an appellate court would later block Scheindlin’s ruling and order her dismissed from all street-stop litigation over a lack of impartiality, the issue became moot when the de Blasio administration abandoned the appeal shortly after taking office in January 2014.

Kelly, who had worked hard to recruit minorities to the NYPD, is at his most bitter in discussing the stop, question, and frisk controversy. “Was it really plausible that the most diverse police department on earth, with officers hailing from 106 different countries and representing every imaginable race, would engage in a massive conspiracy to conduct street stops to deny minorities their Constitutional rights?” A Rand Corporation report commissioned by Kelly found that the NYPD had been understopping minorities, relative to their share of crimes committed. But if Kelly has still not gotten over stop, question, and frisk, New York City has, unfortunately. The legal issues aside, there is no political will, among the city’s far-left governing class, to restore the rate of stops to what they were at their peak under Bloomberg. Kelly may yet be vindicated, however. In 2014, the NYPD recovered fewer guns off the street than in any of the previous eight years.

The book is called Vigilance because that’s the virtue Kelly sees as most threatened in the age of de Blasio.

The book is called Vigilance because that’s the virtue Kelly sees as most threatened in the age of de Blasio. “We can’t, as some politicians are insisting, use this time to lighten up or tolerate more crimes and violations. The problem isn’t proactive policing. The problem isn’t that more of our resources are necessarily focused in certain neighborhoods where the crime is. The people in those neighborhoods are the ones who call us. They are the ones who need us most.” Across the nation, cities have become much more liberal as they have become safer. Recent years have seen a wave of “progressive” politicians come to power in mayor’s offices and city councils who now face no significant political opposition. The decline of the conservative Democrat has been most keenly felt at the local level. Crime in America remains overwhelmingly concentrated in cities, and urban political leadership — not to mention administrative competence, like Kelly’s — seems to be in ever-shorter supply. How hopeful can we be about crime in America when there seems to be so much to fear from current trends in city politics?


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