The Crown Heights riots in 1991 were arguably Kelly’s first public test. As a former commander of the 71st Precinct, Kelly was familiar with the neighborhood. But as a former Marine, Kelly was respectful of the command structure inside the department, even when the burden of controlling the riots fell down the ranks to the chief of detectives. Three days into the riots, Kelly finally stepped in and the riots were quelled.
In a state report following the riots, Kelly was criticized for failing to act sooner. “Although he did not have the responsibility for patrol services, Kelly had the authority to intervene,” state officials concluded. “It is regrettable that, under the circumstances, Kelly did not deem it appropriate to seek an active role.” Kelly claimed he hadn’t comprehended the scale of violence. “In retrospect, I should have been there,” Kelly told the Post at the time.
After the riots, then-Commissioner Lee Brown, who bore the brunt of the criticism, resigned, and Mayor David Dinkins, a former Marine, appointed Kelly acting police commissioner. If he delayed in Crown Heights, Kelly made up for it in streamlining the flow of information in the notoriously sluggish department and working to restore the police bond with the aggrieved. On Sunday mornings, like a politician on the stump, Kelly made the rounds at churches in black neighborhoods, attempting to establish better community relations. But perhaps the most significant moment of his tenure came in February 1993, after a car bomb exploded under the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Dinkins was in Japan, so it was Kelly who stepped in front of the cameras. He was such a reassuring presence after the attack that Bill Clinton interviewed him for the post of FBI director. Inside police headquarters, Kelly proved to be a hands-on boss. Working late at night—as the crack epidemic in the city began to subside, the crime statistics began their long decline, and the number of murders dipped below 2,000—Kelly would use the kitchen that abuts his office to cook meals for aides and detectives working on his security detail.
“I make good meatballs,” Kelly says. His secret?
“I’ll tell you the secret, but you’ll probably put the secret out.”
Then he tells me anyway. “My secret is sautéed onions. The onions give it moisture. You just got to cut them real small.
“I like Sicilian food,” he continues. “It’s real peasant food. They use everything. It’s like spleen, things like this.”
Despite the support Kelly was able to build, his boss Dinkins lost the election to Rudy Giuliani, who picked Boston’s even-more-media-friendly Bill Bratton as police commissioner. During the transition, Kelly attempted to dismantle his brain trust, sources say. “He wanted literally no institutional memory, a blank slate,” says a former aide from this period. “He wanted Bratton to fall on his ass.” The NYPD’s chief spokesman, Paul Browne, says the charge is “utter nonsense,” considering Browne himself and other loyalists remained at headquarters until after the transition. Kelly insists he wasn’t bent out of shape after getting overlooked by Giuliani. “I sort of anticipated that,” he says. “I went on to other things.”
After three decades at the NYPD, Kelly’s next job—not reported on in his official biography—was in the private sector. Seven months after leaving One Police Plaza, Kelly became the New York president of Investigative Group International, Inc., a P.I. firm that has been referred to as “Bill Clinton’s private CIA” and that Dinkins had hired to prepare the opposition research on Giuliani. In the fall of 1994, IGI was awarded a no-bid contract by President Clinton’s State Department, and Kelly went to Haiti to lead a group of police monitors on the island, accompanied by Browne. A former reporter who keeps a bag of cigars nearby and whom police-beat reporters chide as “Kelly’s Karl Rove,” Browne has been with Kelly for so long he’s become Kelly’s most trusted adviser.
“Paul lost 30 pounds down there eating the Haitian diet,” Kelly says.
“One day I saw how meat was transported, I became a vegetarian,” Browne says.
“Pork tartare,” Kelly says. “They had the skinniest pigs in the world down there.”
On his return to New York, Kelly coyly refused to rule out an attempt to oust the mayor who had ousted him. “As I’ve said before, I never say never,” Kelly told the Daily News in 1995 about a possible challenge to Giuliani.
Instead, he went to Washington as the undersecretary of enforcement in the Treasury Department and later took the lesser post of Customs commissioner. Before the 2001 mayor’s race, Kelly accepted a $450,000-a-year security job with Bear Stearns. He lunched with reporters and often raised his eyebrows at the crime victories of his successors. Of the sweeping declines in reported crimes under Giuliani, Kelly said he thought it was unfair for the police to take credit when so many other factors contribute to increases and decreases in crime.