New York's top cop: beat officer at heart

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The call came in for a domestic dispute, potentially violent. A squad car had already been dispatched. A nearby sergeant also responded.

He knocked on the door. When it opened, he was stunned. There stood a very fit, very familiar-looking man with a military bearing and a crew cut. It was Ray Kelly, New York's police commissioner.

"You live here?" asked the officer incredulously.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The answer was no. But the officer learned firsthand what most New York cops suspect: Commissioner Kelly may show up anywhere. The head of the nation's largest police force - which has been cited as an international model for cutting-edge crime-fighting techniques - just happened to be on one of his unannounced rides in a patrol car when the call came in. "I still like to go out on assignment," says Kelly simply. "I like the excitement."

As he marks his first year in office, colleagues say this is typical of the man who gave up a lucrative corporate job to return to the New York Police Department at a crucial moment. It's facing unprecedented threats of terrorism as its budget is slashed and resources scaled back. But Kelly is a man who likes a challenge and has always gone where he's needed - from Haiti to the Customs Service and back the NYPD, regardless of money or status. He's the first commissioner to rise through the ranks from cadet to top cop, and the first to take the job a second time around.

Despite the sagging economy and an increase in crime around the country, New York has grown even safer under his leadership. In 2002, the crime rate was down almost 6 percent from the year earlier.

Kelly sees no reason why it can't keep going down. "That's the way we like it," he says, smiling and sitting back in a comfortable leather chair at his office at One Police Plaza. "It's very simple: It's resources. We've had a significant increase that can address the little things and still take care of the big ones."

To Kelly, resources mean cops on the beat. Just prior to 9/11, New York had more than 40,000 police officers. That's one for every 209 residents. Compare this to Houston, which has one for every 375 people, and to Los Angeles, which has an officer for every 409.

Flashback to the early '90s

The plan to increase the number of cops was actually put in place in 1992, during Kelly's first tenure as police commissioner under then-Mayor David Dinkins. At the time, crime was spiraling out of control. There were 2,200 murders that year, an all-time high, and only 28,000 cops were on the force.

When he was first deputy commissioner in 1991, Kelly was one of the chief architects of the Safe City/Safe Streets program, which levied a tax to help pay for an additional 7,000 police on the streets. In addition, he was the first commissioner to target so-called quality-of-life crimes, working aggressively to get squeegee men and high-level drug dealers off the streets.

"He laid the groundwork for many of the changes that took place during the Giuliani administration," says Robert Louden of the Criminal Justice Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "I don't think he ever got much positive credit for what he did."

New York's legendary crime-rate reduction actually started in 1992, during Kelly's first year as police commissioner. But he dismisses any notion that he'd been shortchanged. Instead, he's determined that on his second watch, New York remain the nation's safest largest city - even if he has to do it with less resources.

Since 9/11, the NYPD force is down to 38,000 because of retirements and budget cuts. An additional 1,000 officers have been reassigned to terrorism duty. Under the current budget, the force will drop to 37,000 this summer.

"That's something that we're going to have to watch closely," he says.

Indeed, the man who preferred to keep walking the beat after earning two law degrees keeps close tabs on the neighborhoods. And when he sees trouble, he acts quickly. At the beginning of 2002, there was a spike in the number of shootings. When it became clear it could turn into a trend, he immediately implemented a gun buyback program and "Operation Gun Stop," which produced a 27 percent increase in gun arrests. By the end of the year, shootings had returned to the same level as the year before.

Guns also made headlines at the start of the new year - but this time, it was the police's use of deadly force that drew attention. Within the first 48 hours of 2003, officers fatally shot four suspects.

Within a day, Kelly held a press briefing detailing why he believed that in three cases, the officers were justified. The fourth case is under further investigation.

Critics contend that Kelly decided too quickly that the police were in the right.

Kelly has also been criticized for going to court to overturn a consent decree requiring police to get permission before investigating political and religious organizations. He contends that in this era of terrorism, police are faced with threats "never envisioned when the guidelines were written." Civil rights activists counter that they are simple safeguards to ensure police investigate and collect information only when a clear threat is warranted.

Colleagues and friends are not surprised that Kelly is working to give police more leeway. As a former marine colonel and Vietnam veteran who also earned a master's from Harvard's Kennedy School, he likes to get things done no matter what it takes. When he arrived in Haiti after President Clinton appointed him director of the International Police Monitors in the early 1990s, there wasn't a barbell to be found on the island. A fitness enthusiast, he finally found a metal pole and tied two cinder blocks to the ends so he could get his morning exercise.

Backup optional

He showed just as much determination in his duties, exposing himself to the same risks as his police officers. One afternoon, a crowd of Haitians had cornered an attaché - a security guard of the ousted dictator - in an old building. The attaché was firing wildly into the crowd to keep them at bay. Kelly arrived, and instead of waiting for lower-level officers, went in himself to disarm and arrest the man.

"He did that kind of thing over and over again. He was the head of the operation. He didn't have to," says Paul Browne, who was with Kelly in Haiti and is now his deputy commissioner for administration. "You know he's going to be there. He's going to watch your back when you're working with him."

From Haiti, Kelly went on to become the undersecretary of the Treasury Department, which put him in charge of the Secret Service; Customs; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and other federal enforcement agencies.

Friends say he soon tired of the job's bureaucratic functions and yearned to get back on the front lines. Kelly went to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and asked if he could be demoted so he could take over Customs - which was under fire for ineptitude and racial profiling. The wish was granted.

While some friends thought it was a huge mistake that would damage his career, they say Kelly cared more about working where he could be the most effective. Two years after Kelly took over Customs, racial profiling complaints, which had arrived in the dozens every month, had dropped to zero. Morale was up.

Friends say Kelly's success is in part due to his governing style - which is tough and disciplined, but also understanding. "He wants the best, and the best for the police officers," says Richard "Bo" Dietl, a security consultant and former police officer. "And if you do your best for him, he'll protect you to the end. He's the real deal."

The people around him

Kelly, who lives with his wife in Battery Park City, doesn't tell these stories about himself. It's up to other people to fill in the color. But he does make it clear he wants to serve where he'll be the most useful, which is why he's back in the Commissioner's Office after being a serious contender to head the FBI.

When the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, he saw the smoke rising and was one of the first on the scene. After the second attack, he and his wife were kept away from their home for weeks. When they returned, they stood on the roof and looked down at the devastation. "Part of our hearts were torn away," he says.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked him to return, he didn't hesitate. Indeed, he hopes he can be a better commissioner now because of the experience he gained in the interim.

"I didn't want to sit on the sidelines after Sept. 11," he says. "The challenge now is to protect the city from terrorism at the same time we continue to fight crime. The city's at a very delicate point in its history."

Kelly says he plans to stay on the job as long as Mr. Bloomberg will have him. After that, he doesn't know. "Maybe I'll check out that early-bird special at Denny's," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...