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New York's top cop: beat officer at heart

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2003


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

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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.

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.