Ray Kelly was at home when he got the call no police commissioner ever wants to get. It was 1:45 in the morning and the voice on the other end of the line told him that a teenager, a black teenager, had just been shot and killed in Brooklyn during some kind of encounter with two Housing cops. From the preliminary details, it didn’t look good. No weapon was recovered. The teen appeared to have been unarmed.
While Kelly was getting briefed, the NYPD’s operations unit had already put the word out, and as many as 25 people had raced to the scene at the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bed-Stuy. There was the borough commander, the duty chief, a five-man shooting team, five internal-affairs investigators, a crime-scene-investigations unit, and several department chiefs.
What took place next was standard procedure. The cop who fired his weapon was taken to the hospital to make sure he wasn’t hurt. Counselors were made available to him, but he wasn’t questioned by his superiors about what happened. Ever since a Supreme Court decision in the sixties, the first person to interview a cop in trouble, other than his own lawyer, is always the district attorney. (If a cop is questioned by a superior, it is like compelled testimony and would be thrown out in court.)
As these kinds of investigations go, it was straightforward. There were the two cops, the two friends of the victim, 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury, and the people they spoke to after the shooting.
What wasn’t standard procedure, however, was Kelly’s response. He went to the scene at nine that morning. “We have pictures and diagrams in the shooting briefs, but there’s nothing like actually being there. I walked up the stairs to the roof, I looked at the landing, and I went out the door onto the rooftop,” Kelly says.
By 11 a.m., he was getting a full report from the borough commander in a meeting that included the chief of department, the internal-affairs inspector, and the commanders of the shooting team, the crime-scene unit, and the police-services agency. By lunchtime, barely ten hours after he was informed of the shooting, Kelly held a press conference at One Police Plaza. He didn’t hesitate, he didn’t equivocate, and he made no attempt to gloss over what happened. It was, he said, based on everything he knew about the incident, a bad shooting.
For a brief moment after the Stansbury shooting, it looked as if the city might get swept up in the full-blown ugliness of a classic racial incident. The kind of divisive confrontation that once roiled community relations and helped shape the political landscape. If you weren’t paying close attention, it appeared, at least at first, as if each of the usual suspects were playing his part in the urban drama perfectly. The cop, of course, wasn’t talking. The abrasive, opportunistic activist was—quite loudly—about the “cold-blooded killing” of young black men. This role was filled by radical, race-baiting (in the Post, he’s been called “racist”) city councilman Charles Barron, replacing the Reverend Al Sharpton, who was off doing stand-up comedy in the Democratic presidential primaries. Meanwhile, police-union president Pat Lynch was busy huffing and puffing about an unfair rush to judgment of the cop.
But it all seemed somehow like a hollow imitation of past confrontations. There was lots of noise but very little passion. It was as if everyone were going through the motions. The shooting and its aftermath were played out in the tabloids for several days, but it never really seemed to capture the public’s attention.
On the surface, the city is a much less divided place than it was before 9/11. But this is only a small part of why the Stansbury shooting failed to ignite an ugly explosion. The more significant reason was the conduct and demeanor of Mayor Bloomberg and Ray Kelly.
There was no belligerence. No reflexive siding with the cop. No tone-deaf pronouncements about the Police Department’s terrific record on the use of force (its record is, in fact, exemplary) while a family’s grief was still fresh. (Perhaps the most egregious example of official obliviousness was when then-Commissioner Howard Safir announced only several days after the shooting of Amadou Diallo that the NYPD was going to start using the more destructive and controversial hollow-point bullets.)
Instead, last week, there was compassion and honesty. There was a clear recognition that a mother had lost her 19-year-old son, a hardworking kid who had done nothing more than decide to take a shortcut across a rooftop to a party. (What happened appears to have been a case of extraordinarily bad timing. Just as Stansbury was pushing open the door to the roof, Officer Richard Neri and his partner, doing what’s known as a routine vertical patrol—checking the stairwells and rooftops—were pulling it from the other side. Clearly, the cops were startled; they didn’t expect anyone to be on the other side of door).
The most important reason that the situation didn’t blow up, however, is because Kelly removed the fuse. His quick, unvarnished judgment call was extraordinary, but not for the reasons most people seemed to think.
It wasn’t a policy change or even an anomalous departure from the always-back-the-cop stance (or in the worst case, remaining noncommittal) adopted during the Giuliani years. Nor was Kelly’s quick verdict on the shooting a return to the other extreme of the pre-Giuliani era when the cop always seemed to be wrong until proved otherwise.
For the police commissioner, this kind of tragedy is the worst possible scenario. It puts him squarely in the middle of the two constituencies he has to serve: the cops and the community.
Kelly feels for Neri. “This cop has to be totally torn apart by what happened,” he says. The commissioner also knows about the grief of the victim’s family. He visited Stansbury’s mother. “It was gut-wrenching.”
What was remarkable about what Kelly did was that he simply told the truth as he saw it. He didn’t feel the need to bow to pressure either from the community or the Police Department. Or the mayor. Though Bloomberg did say the right things and quickly visited the family, the most important thing he did—which he has been doing since his election—was let Ray Kelly be Ray Kelly.
After more than three decades in police work and public service, including his abbreviated first stint as police commissioner under David Dinkins, Kelly is at a point in his career that many people fantasize about but few ever realize: the perfect nexus of job and experience. Kelly knows what needs to be done, and he is in a position to do it.