Gotham Gazette

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New And Old Police Commissioner Ray Kelly

"Crime spikes," headlined the New York Post in late November. "Crime spurt," said the New York Times. Spike or spurt, crime is suddenly up. The four weeks ending Nov. 25 saw a 36.7 percent jump in shootings and a 25 percent increase in murders compared with the same period a year ago.

So even though the Giuliani administration is about to exit with yet another record yearly decline in violent crime, the last few weeks have not been good. It's clear that we're going to need a great police commissioner. Do we have him?


By just about any criterion, Ray Kelly is almost surely the best-qualified police commissioner in New York City history. He had the job once before--from October 1992 until January 1994 under Mayor David Dinkins--and he was well qualified then. A former Marine colonel who had served in Vietnam, he graduated first in his class in the Police Academy in 1960, and then worked his way through 25 different commands over the next 31 years.

He went on from the NYPD commissionership to important jobs in the federal government and the private sector. He served as director of the International Police Monitors struggling to modernize the police force in the Republic of Haiti from 1994 to 1995. From 1996 to 1998 he was undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department, and from 1998 to 2001 he was commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service.

Today he oversees the New York State commission that regulates boxing, and is global head of corporate security at Bear Stearns, the investment banking firm. (In accepting the police commissionership he gives up $450,000 a year in salary and generous benefits, for a job that pays a little more than a third of that.)

He has strong educational credentials--a bachelor's degree from Manhattan College, a law degree from St. John's University School of Law, a Masters in Law from New York University, and a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard.

He even looks like a cop.

So with the exception of a few churlish talk radio hosts who called him "Jelly Kelly," saying he was weak on crime--which nobody else really believes--most commentators were quick with lavish praise. Newsday's Robert Reno, for example, wrote that the choice of Kelly "was a Periclean act because there are people who regard Ray Kelly as someone as close as we come to a secular saint in this city, the man responsible for the decline in crime that has made it a more livable place, a figure who never confused histrionics with good police work and who served loyally in the Clinton administration." Pericles and sainthood in one sentence. The guy looks good.


Still, most New Yorkers want an answer to a simple question: How did he do the last time?

The answer is pretty well. For one thing he had a bit of luck. The national decline in both violent crime and property crime began in 1993 in the early months of his commissionership. He helped spur the decline in New York by instituting the Safe Streets, Safe City program and putting thousands more cops on the streets. (In 1990, after the shocking murder of a tourist in the subway, Mayor Dinkins got funding for an additional 6000 cops with an income tax surcharge.) Kelly believed in Broken Windows policing--taking care of minor signs of disorder so they don't become major. He initiated the campaign against the squeegee men, according to former commissioner William Bratton's biography, which subsequently became the linchpin of Giuliani's crime-fighting strategy.

Chris Stone, executive director of the Vera Institute of Justice, says every police commissioner faces a double bind. To succeed, a commissioner has to be both accountable for crime and accountable for the conduct of his officers.

Kelly staved off failure on both without fully succeeding on either the first time. In his first term, Kelly demonstrated his interest in the details of crime prevention, in particular getting the murder rate down from its 1990 mid-Dinkins administration historic high of 2,254. When Kelly left in 1994, the crime data showed 1,927 murders for the previous year. This pales before subsequent Giuliani administration achievements--including Commissioner Kerik's correct prediction last year that the city's murder rate would dip below 500--but it was a ray of hope at the time.

Kelly also staved off failure on police conduct. After a corruption scandal erupted in the Internal Affairs Bureau he successfully restructured it--or at least restructured it enough to hold critics at bay.

But this is a decade later. How is he likely to do now?


Kelly knows the NYPD well. Chris Stone recalls that Lee Brown (Kelly's predecessor as police commissioner) once said that you can't learn the department on the job. The cocoon of the commissionership is so complete that anyone who doesn't know the department already will have a very hard time getting a hold on it.

And New Yorkers want a commissioner who has hold of the department. Kelly's history has been to take charge while maintaining the loyalty of those who work for him. Paul Browne, an assistant police commissioner under Kelly who went on to work with him in Washington and Haiti, told the New York Times about his many hairy experiences alongside his chief: "You just knew he was there. He didn't, like, wait in the jeep, you know."

Kelly was a Marine before he was a cop, and Marine officers don't wait in the jeep. Marine officers stay with their men, says J. Robert Moskin, author of The U.S. Marine Corps Story. "The Marine officer," notes Moskin, "says 'follow me,' not 'go there.'" While this is the ethic of the New York Fire Department, it hasn't been the ethic of the NYPD, whose officers tend to be more of the go-there school of management. Kelly's ethic should be helpful.


There is no mystery about what New Yorkers want. They want a safe city without ugly police-civilian incidents -- a safe city in which citizens are treated well. Will Kelly be able to deliver?

Certainly he knows how to say the right things. At the announcement of his appointment he promised: "There'll be no letup in the Police Department's aggressive suppression of crime and disorder. That means we will use proactive policing policies and practices to ensure that the law-abiding people of this city are not robbed of their sense of security by panhandlers and minor quality-of-life offenses."

But what about race?


As commissioner, Kelly demonstrated substantial sensitivity on racial issues, and was well-known for spending Sunday mornings travelling to black churches to recruit black NYPD candidates. Since only 10 percent of police officers today are black in a city that is 28 percent black, he is going to need that sensitivity over the next few years.

Race, however, is also the source of the one persistent criticism of Kelly--his handling, as deputy commissioner under Lee Brown, of the 1991 Crown Heights riots. A 1993 state commission investigating the riots gently criticized Kelly for not seeking "an active role" until three days after the trouble started. Cops stood by, and the higher-ups did nothing. Eventually Kelly ordered cops to take control of the Brooklyn streets, but well after enormous damage had been done. In a 1993 television interview, Kelly blamed Brown, saying the "buck stops at the top of the department." Brown should have given specific orders to commanders, he said.

Now the buck will stop with Kelly.


Ray Kelly has federal credentials in spades, far more than has any other commissioner in history. He is going to need them as the NYPD jockeys with the FBI and the federal Department of Justice over jurisdiction. Terrorism is uppermost in everyone's mind even as low-level crime is making its way back to local streets. Cooper Union historian Fred Siegel argues, "In a time in which the distinction between war and crime has narrowed, Kelly has already worked in positions in which he had to deal with this reality. Given that we're a target in New York, it's a huge asset that he's in a good position to make a difference."

Still, says Siegel, the real test of Kelly's commissionership is likely to be local: how will he react when the first ugly racial confrontation between police officer and citizen occurs?

If he is really lucky and really good, that may not happen for a very long time.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, is the former director of the Citizens Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. She is now writing a book entitled The Conscience of the American Jury.

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