The Force Isn’t With Him

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.”

Some of the most contentious numbers are those generated by stop-and-frisk. The tactic’s worthy goal is to take illegal guns off the street, but the side effect is the harassment of thousands of innocent citizens, the majority of them black. “I like the guy, and he’s been very responsive and open with things I’ve asked for, particularly on crime issues,” says Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams. “We needed some overtime, some extra hours for police officers, and we got that. We were having an anti-violence march, and we got the permits.”

But Williams, who was one of two black public officials who were hassled and handcuffed by cops on Labor Day, during the West Indian Day Parade, is stumped trying to explain the gap between Kelly’s personal warmth and the harshness of his strategies. “The mayor and the commissioner are much better than their predecessors in public relations. But what they’re doing to the black and Latino communities is even worse. I don’t think either of them are evil people, but there’s no one dealing with a culture that allows officers to treat one segment of the city different than the others.”

Inside One Police Plaza, Kelly’s circle seems to shrink even as it expands: He has 26 deputy commissioners and chiefs but controls decisions large and small. “Ray runs the department in the complete opposite way Mike Bloomberg runs City Hall—he is a micromanager,” a government insider says. One consequence of Kelly’s unwillingness to delegate is that subordinates are reluctant to bring him bad news. Lately, he reads too much of it in the paper.

After ten years they are friendly but not friends. Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly have shared tough moments, consoling families of cops killed in the line of duty, and happier ones, out to dinner along with the mayor’s girlfriend and the commissioner’s wife. Still, they are not close, though the dynamic is a significant improvement over recent history. “Every relationship I’ve known between a police commissioner and a mayor has either been competitive, tense, or sick, like Giuliani and Kerik,” a business leader says. “These two are comfortable with one another.”

When he arrived in City Hall Bloomberg’s main passions were for education, economic development, and health initiatives. So while the mayor needed the city to remain safe, he was content to stay out of Kelly’s way; Kelly, who doesn’t enjoy explaining himself, was more than happy to stay out of the politics of Bloomberg’s bullpen. Now their mutually beneficial independence is being tested in new and tricky ways by Occupy Wall Street.

The last time the pair were presented with a high-profile, extended political and public-safety challenge was the 2004 Republican convention, but that event played right into Kelly’s strengths: advance planning, attention to tiny detail, and the deployment of overwhelming quantities of manpower and hardware. This time Kelly has been confronted with a guerrilla action and his forces seemed flummoxed, overreacting with pepper spray and the mass arrest of marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge. The mayor, meanwhile, has veered between impatience for the demonstrators’ disruption of the neighborhood and high-minded defenses of their freedom of speech. When Brookfield Properties, the owner of Zuccotti Park, pushed the city to clear out protesters for a cleaning of the plaza, Kelly was one of the voices urging caution, not wanting his officers drawn into an unpredictable confrontation. “When I’ve seen Ray in reactive, difficult political situations, he allows the mayor to take the lead,” a Bloomberg adviser says. “I don’t know if that’s because he’s smart and doesn’t want to be out front on it or because he doesn’t trust his own instincts in that realm. He doesn’t lean on City Hall for anything—and then when crisis hits, he leans on City Hall. He’s doing that again now.”

Kelly is a great believer in chain of command, so maybe he’s merely deferring to the boss on what is primarily a political problem. Kelly is also smart enough—and image-conscious enough—to understand that a messy ending at Zuccotti Park would stain his legacy just as much as the mayor’s. One of Kelly’s talents has been his ability to adapt, and for ten years that skill has helped make the city safer and the commissioner immensely popular. Now we’ll see how much he has left in his game.


The Force Isn’t With Him