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The Force Isn’t With Him

Ray Kelly has had a remarkable run as NYPD commissioner—but now the problems are piling up.

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Illustration by Matthew Woodson  

Up in the Bronx, hundreds of furious off-duty cops swarm a courthouse to chant “Ray Kelly, hypocrite!” on the day sixteen fellow officers are being arraigned in a ticket-fixing scandal. Out in Bay Ridge, a group of veteran cops are arrested for allegedly smuggling guns into the city. On Staten Island, a cop is caught on tape bragging he’d “fried another nigger.” Over in Zuccotti Park, a ragged group of Occupy Wall Street protesters is hunkering down for winter, their resolve and popularity having been bolstered by the mistakes of Kelly’s troops. The Times’ front page says the NYPD can’t police itself; the Associated Press says the department’s “Moroccan Initiative” is spying on American citizens. Even the commissioner’s most loyal fan base firmly grasps the change in momentum: Call the office of a New York business titan and say you’re writing about the NYPD, and you’re interrupted before finishing the sentence. “Oh,” the real-estate man says, “you mean, is Ray Kelly losing his grip?”

It’s been a bumpy few months for the commissioner, easily the roughest stretch of bad headlines and bad behavior in Kelly’s long tenure atop the NYPD. Perhaps it’s the law of averages catching up to him after what’s been a mostly charmed decade, a few bad apples in his vast, vastly law-abiding orchard of 35,000. Or maybe the furor over term limits a couple of years back focused on the wrong man.

Ray Kelly has been a great police commissioner, perhaps the city’s greatest. During his first, brief run in the job under Mayor Dinkins, Kelly put in motion reforms that enabled Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton to overhaul the department and swiftly drive down crime rates. In the aftermath of September 11, Kelly was the untested Mayor Bloomberg’s most important hire; he’s built from scratch an international anti-terrorism arm that’s short-circuited potential new attacks even as the rest of the force shrank day-to-day crime rates to historic lows, all while budget cuts whittled away at manpower. He hasn’t always shown much concern for civil liberties, whether locking up thousands at the 2004 Republican National Convention or stopping-and-frisking hundreds of thousands, the bulk of them in the city’s poorer precincts. But Kelly has compiled a Hall of Fame record in an extremely difficult job.

He has also had a very long run. Major-city police chiefs last an average of three and a half years; Kelly, 70, is closing in on ten years, challenging the record held by Lewis Valentine (1934-45). In 2008, when it appeared Bloomberg would be leaving City Hall, Kelly was flattered by talk that he was the ­perfect person to become the next mayor. The notion of actually campaigning for the job was less enticing, and Kelly, unsure of what he wanted to do next, was relieved when Bloomberg decided to stay four more years. The mayor made changes elsewhere for the third term but never considered bringing in a fresh face to run the NYPD, so Kelly is one of the handful of commissioners who’ve been with him since day one.

In some big ways, Kelly’s job security seems well earned. Unless we have a gruesomely bloody holiday season, the city will finish 2011 with less than 300 homicides, a modern low. Yet even the greats can stay too long and grow stale. The recent misdeeds and missteps by a few cops are a symptom of something larger: the hidden costs of ten years of prioritizing statistics and secrecy.

“The corruption cases are a by-product of a culture that’s upside-down,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a former Brooklyn cop and assistant district attorney who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Things that should be important are not, and a lot of what gets emphasized is relatively trivial.” Cops love to gripe, but this time the main complaint isn’t pay. “One of the major reasons morale is at a record low is that there’s crushing accountability now,” O’Donnell says. “The patrol guide is something like 2,000 pages. Cops work under the most oppressive set of rules, and every rule is a silver bullet aimed at them if they make a mistake, if they fail to fill out a form. Kelly has done some spectacular things, and the cultural problem predates him. But he’s got a very angry workforce. Internally, you basically need an Arab Spring in the Police Department.”

CompStat, the pioneering system for tracking crime and deploying police resources, was early on an agent of change and mobility: If cops or commanders did well in one neighborhood, they gained higher rank or greater responsibility or were assigned to grapple with a similar problem in a new location. Promotions and transfers still occur, but these days cops feel the data is more often used to keep people in place: Generate good statistics in one precinct and you’re going to stay put. And the numbers themselves have taken on a life of their own. “Sometimes a smaller number of good arrests is much more important than a larger number of crappy arrests,” an ex-cop says. “They do lots of arrests in the Bronx, but they throw out tons of cases. But the internal process rewards the numbers and quality is less significant. You end up with more being better, that every year you have to improve the numbers.”


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