Kelly’s management creed is to control everything he can control. After 9/11, Kelly’s posture was that security was something an NYPD commissioner couldn’t delegate to others. Inside the massive Police Department, he’s fashioned a counterterrorism force staffed by former CIA officers, FBI agents, and Ivy Leaguers that has, essentially, its own foreign policy as well as informants throughout the city. He’s developed a whole new suite of tactics not only to make the city safer but also—almost as important—to make it feel safer. And part of the strategy is keeping himself in the frame: He is the department, and the department is him. “As a result of his success and longevity, Ray Kelly has become to the NYPD what J. Edgar Hoover was to the FBI,” says Michael Palladino, head of the detectives union.
Though the Feds sometimes complain about Kelly’s detectives’ stepping into their long-term cases and his poaching of headlines, they’ve acknowledged him as a partner in counterterrorism work. On the domestic front, he’s proved to be an administrative magician. With dwindling resources and thousands fewer cops on the streets, the number of reported crimes has continued to dwindle. Despite this year’s dramatic rise in shootings (one of the highest numbers since Bloomberg took office) and uptick in murders (the only crime stat that’s hard to fudge), the homicide rate in New York is still near its lowest in history, give or take a few dozen DOAs. Criminologists say many factors contribute to this, but Kelly has been happy to give the NYPD the credit.
These days, despite the occasional scandal, like last week’s suspension of a lab technician who is alleged to have falsified reports, Kelly’s biggest problem can be his own success and the burden of high expectations. No one expected the crime numbers to continue going down throughout his tenure, yet until the past six months they did. The commissioner is famously sensitive to criticism—“I’ve been there, and let me tell you, it is not a pleasant place to be,” says Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. about the calls he gets from One Police Plaza—so the recent spikes in crime are unsettling for Kelly. What else can he do to drive the numbers down further?
If he were a politician, a role he’s sometimes flirted with, Kelly would be the most popular one in the city. Earlier this year, he received a 70 percent approval rating, matching his highest ever (and nine points higher than Bloomberg’s). Mitchell Moss, an NYU public-policy professor, has said the commissioner “radiates power.” Thomas Reppetto, the author of NYPD: A City and Its Police, calls Kelly “the greatest police commissioner in the history of the city. He invented the playbook on terrorism from scratch.”
Not everyone buys into this heroic picture. Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, calls Kelly a “master of PR” and his policies “hyperaggressive.” Under Kelly, the NYPD “has taken on the aura of an occupying force.”
Conga lines of patrol cars flash sirens and barrel down streets, the kind of maximum-visibility, flood-the-zone feint that’s a signature of Kelly’s department. Cops sit high above the street in watchtowers. And more New Yorkers are getting stopped, questioned, frisked, and put into a database. People like Lieberman are mind-boggled that city leaders would allow a commissioner like Kelly to collect information on hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are mostly minorities and nearly 90 percent of whom have done nothing wrong.
Kelly won’t apologize for his tactics. With his military bearing and unforgiving attitude, he’s an odd fit for such a progressive city. But his resilient popularity is a testament to the times he lives in and the dynamics of modern fear. “Even liberals don’t like to be blown up,” says Hank Sheinkopf, who advised Bloomberg in 2009. “Kelly is the guy who seems to know how to protect people from getting blown up. The issue is not whether he knows or doesn’t know. It’s the perception he knows. He has made it believable that he is all that is standing between the citizens of New York and destruction.”
“Hey Joe,” Kelly says, “I want an iced cappuccino, okay? Decaf.”
The bunker pulls over. He looks out a tinted window at the Dunkin’ Donuts. “Chris, what is Dunkin’s Dark Roast?”
“It’s the Colombia version, yeah. High octane.”
“I haven’t seen that one. No brain surgery after that one.”
“Bold flavor,” Kelly says.
On the street, faces look in the windows of the bunker, wondering who might be inside.
“It’s amazing how many Dunkin’ Donuts there are in the city now, it just shocks me,” Kelly says. “You almost see more Dunkin’ Donuts than Starbucks. I don’t know what the numbers are, but you used to see Starbucks everywhere. Now it’s Dunkin’ Donuts.”