Exactly four years ago this week, Ray Kelly and I sat in his plush Madison Avenue office at Bear Stearns and talked about the future. The 9/11 attacks were still a raw wound for the city, and Kelly, who had done an abbreviated stint running the NYPD during the waning days of the Dinkins administration, was only two weeks away from returning to public life to become Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg’s police commissioner. Kelly was desperate to be back in the game, to be a player at a critical time in the history of the city. And heading the NYPD, he told me, was the best law-enforcement job in the country. But in many ways, the job had never been tougher. To start with, crime had dropped by 57 percent during the Giuliani years—pushing it still lower seemed near impossible. Even worse, there was now a new, more acute source of fear—terrorism. The NYPD would have a whole new battle to fight at a time when the city’s shrinking economy meant there would be less money and fewer cops. At the tabloids, the knives were out, with headlines announcing the end of the tough-on-crime Giuliani era.
“I think he’s getting screwed royally,” John Timoney, a former deputy commissioner who’s now Miami’s police chief, told me at the time. “He’s been handed a poisoned chalice.”
Kelly, however, didn’t spend too much time inspecting the contents of the chalice. Instead, he revamped the Police Department from top to bottom. Unwilling to leave the city’s fate in the hands of the federal government, Kelly created his own version of the CIA and the FBI within the NYPD. Bringing in a top spymaster from the CIA, he remade the intelligence division, stationing New York detectives in cities from Toronto to Tel Aviv to gather information. He hired language specialists who speak, among other tongues, Arabic, Pashto, and Urdu. Kelly’s efforts have been so successful that the FBI now complains that the NYPD doesn’t share intelligence with it.
In the street, his elite Hercules teams of heavily armed, black-clad Special Forces–type units pop up around town daily. There is video surveillance at dozens of key locations (much to the displeasure of the ACLU), as well as strategically placed detection devices designed to pick up any anomalies that might indicate the release of a biological or chemical weapon.
He also restored the Police Department’s relationship with the city’s minority communities, which had been so badly frayed during the Giuliani years. Eighteen percent of the police force is now black, up from 15 percent only five years ago.
And, amazingly, he’s brought crime down still further, making New York the safest large city in the country.
It’s become a cliché to honor Ray Kelly these days. So be it. It can’t be avoided. By revolutionizing the Police Department, Kelly has reversed the way New Yorkers feel about their city—he’s made them feel safer here than anywhere else. All with a classic Irish cop’s face that looks like a snub-nosed .45.