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The Twice-Top Cop

Mayor Giuliani replaced NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly with Bill Bratton. Then crime dropped by more than 60 percent. Now Mayor Bloomberg has hired Ray Kelly back. Think Kelly's got something to prove?


On a bright October day several weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, Ray Kelly and his wife, Veronica, were allowed to return to their Battery Park City apartment for the first time. Though they weren't permitted to move back in (that wouldn't happen for nearly two months), they were able, at least, to survey the scene and to take whatever personal items they could carry. Before the Kellys left the building, a block from the Trade Center, they went up to the roof to look around. Though he had been to ground zero several times, Kelly was stunned by the view overlooking the site: "For the first time, I really saw the breadth and the scope of the damage. What had been our neighborhood -- gone. Literally gone. The whole thing. We loved the area, and we were now looking at a pile of rubble that had been like our town."

As they stood on the roof in the afternoon sunlight, his wife quietly weeping, they tried to pick out familiar landmarks in the ruins -- the bank, a bookstore. For Kelly, there was a moment of clarity. The kind that a Marine colonel and 31-year veteran of the NYPD would have. "It's not like I hadn't thought about it before. But standing there, the whole scene crystallized for me that this was war and I didn't want to be on the sidelines," says Kelly, who after nearly four decades of an extraordinary life in public service -- highlighted by a stint as police commissioner in the David Dinkins administration -- had finally settled into a prestigious directorship at Bear Stearns. A job, by the way, that he loved.

"I knew that I wanted to do something," he says. "When you're in government, you don't have much money, but you do have a certain amount of power. You have the ability to make a difference, and I knew at that moment that's what mattered most."

At the time, Kelly had no immediate prospects, even though he'd been advising candidate Michael Bloomberg on law-enforcement issues for nearly a year. To begin with, Bloomberg was, only a few weeks before the election, still an almost laughable long shot. But even if Bloomberg did somehow manage a huge upset, the two men had never discussed a role for Kelly in a Bloomberg administration. In fact, Kelly had convinced the rookie politician that continuity was critical and that he should try to persuade Commissioner Bernard Kerik to stay on.

Even on Election Night, when Bloomberg's improbable victory was assured and it was clear Kerik would not stay, Kelly could be heard in Bloomberg's suite thinking out loud about whom they could get for that job. It wasn't until the next day that Kelly began to seriously think about the possibility of becoming New York's police commissioner, again, himself. The official call came two days later. Kelly was walking on Lexington Avenue when Mayor-elect Bloomberg paged him. They had a brief conversation during which the offer was made, and Kelly said he'd call him back -- which he did, rather quickly, to accept.

"It was an opportunity to get back in the business that I know in an organization that I love," says Kelly, who points out, as evidence of his fealty to the NYPD, that in 1993 he turned down the directorship of the FBI to stay on as police commissioner. "This is the best law-enforcement job in the country. But more than anything, I wanted to be a player at this critical time in the history of the city and the history of the department."

So Kelly has once again gotten his chance to serve. But the old aphorism "Be careful what you wish for" may soon begin to haunt him. For weeks, the city's tabloids have been dotted with panting headlines about a rise in shootings, a spike in murders, record numbers of homeless people on the streets, and even the return of the squeegee men. And these reports are often accompanied by opinion pieces issuing grave warnings about a post-Giuliani return to mayhem and disorder.

Some of the pieces impugn Kelly's qualifications simply by associating him with the Dinkins administration -- the op-ed equivalent of warning shots fired in Kelly's direction.

Eight years later, there is the lingering accusation that Kelly was, if not exactly soft on crime, at least willing to accept much of the pre-Giuliani conventional wisdom that there was little cops could actually do about it. When I ask Kelly about this, his demeanor changes. He visibly stiffens but is reluctant to engage. He has nothing to gain from fighting old battles. Especially now. "Was I annoyed about some things that might've been said? Sure. But that's ancient history" is as far as he'll go.

Kelly did, however, begin to move the department in the right direction. Crime went down every month he was police commissioner, which was surprising enough at the time because the Police Department had never actually succeeded in reducing crime. But whatever good he did was completely overshadowed by the Bill Bratton revolution that followed. For Kelly, it's a little like being Buck Showalter -- the guy who managed the Yankees before Joe Torre.

"Ray wants to vindicate himself," says someone who knows him well. "He may have been on his way to do great things, but the plug was pulled on him by Rudy Giuliani. He was sent packing not really having done anything wrong but not having had the time to accomplish much. He's also a little embarrassed at what happened when Bratton came in. You know, the fact that he wasn't the one who figured it out."

Besides, the Police Department's enormous success under Giuliani conceals the fact that it's quietly been slipping toward crisis. "From a distance, the NYPD looks like a brand-new, shiny Cadillac," says John Timoney, who just resigned as Philadelphia's immensely popular police commissioner. "But as you get closer, you see that the shiny new car has a seized engine. So Ray's got to go in and fix the engine. There's an awful lot of heavy lifting involved. But even if he is able to get it all done, it'll be a thankless task. He won't get any credit for it because everyone will say, 'The car was fine. I saw it myself.' "

Timoney, who worked for Kelly in the NYPD back in the early nineties and was promoted to first deputy commissioner by Bratton, knows better than most people the bitter irony in this situation. "I think he's getting screwed royally," Timoney says in no uncertain terms. "The first time around, Ray took over as police commissioner more than halfway through another man's term, and I think he did a very good job. Believe me, I know how hard he worked. He set the table for Bratton. But he got no credit. This time, as they say in Brooklyn, it's even worser. The place is a mess, and there'll be very little money to do anything. So in some respects, he's been handed a poisoned chalice. But he's the most qualified man in America to deal with it."

You could almost make the case that Ray Kelly ought to have the office on the fourteenth floor of One Police Plaza based solely on the way he looks. Small, compact, and still tautly muscled from his five-day-a-week workouts, Kelly appears every sinewy inch the Marine he used to be: from his impossibly tight little stubble of a crewcut, which looks more like someone's five o'clock shadow than like a grown man's hairdo, to his highly shined shoes. And then there's the face, that amazing snub-nosed .45 of a kisser that seems to capture once and for all time what a cop in the NYPD ought to look like.

When you get to his qualifications, Kelly actually looks even better -- he's the most credentialed, experienced commissioner the department has ever had. He has a law degree from St. John's, which he earned while juggling rotating shifts as a cop. He has a master's in law from NYU, which he earned while working around his four-to-midnight shift. And he has a master's from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

He was undersecretary of the Treasury, in charge of the Secret Service; of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and of the Customs Service. He also ran the Customs Service alone for three years. He was on the executive committee of Interpol, and for six months, he was in Haiti on behalf of the State Department to establish and train a police force. Oh, and before settling in with the NYPD, he did a tour of duty in Vietnam with the Marines.

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