Brooklyn Burning


On the third day of the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, Ray Kelly was in police commissioner Lee Brown’s car when a 10-13 call (officer needs assistance) came over the radio. When they arrived at the scene in Brooklyn, it was the first time Kelly had been to the neighborhood, where conflict between blacks and Hasidim had simmered for years, since the disturbances started. He was, to say the least, surprised by the anger, the destruction, and the level of disorder. He was even more surprised by the passive posture of the police.

“No tactics were being used to control the situation,” Kelly, now the police commissioner, told me recently. “The police were essentially just standing there looking at the crowd. And you’d see these kids run out suddenly and throw something at the cops, and the cops would then chase them with a nightstick. It wasn’t smart policing.”

Though he was the NYPD’s first deputy commissioner, Kelly was not in the chain of command in those days. His job was essentially administrative. But, sparked by what he saw in the street, he asked to get involved. “It was clear that aggressive action was needed, and we did a lot of things very quickly, and by the next day, we’d made a lot of arrests and the riots were over.”

In the story line of contemporary race relations in New York, the riots in Crown Heights hold a special, pivotal role. Twelve years and several commissions and detailed reports later, the situation has still not been satisfactorily elucidated. The stinging irony, of course, is that the city’s racial nerves were so badly frayed while New York was being run by its first black mayor.

When Dinkins was narrowly elected in 1989, he was helped in part by an electorate hoping to soothe the racial hostilities so evident in the murder of Yusuf Hawkins. He was then narrowly defeated in 1993, precisely because of his inability—as evidenced by Crown Heights—to quell those racial tensions. The riots helped give birth to the Giuliani mantra “one city, one standard” and the polarized moral simplicity of the next eight years.

Questions linger for many people about whether the cops were instructed to hold back. Did they allow the angry mob to run wild? And more to the point, was any or all of this race-based? Meaning, did a black mayor and a black police commissioner tell the police not to crack down on the angry black mob? Questions about anti-Semitism caused wounds in the relations between blacks and Jews in this city that have still not healed.

Kelly believes that the failure to engage on the part of the police chiefs who were at the scene may have been based on an assumption on their part that that’s what the mayor and the police commissioner would have wanted. “And I think there was perhaps a belief that a largely white police force coming in confrontation with a large number of black youth would be seen as an overreaction.”

For Kelly, who has served as commanding officer of the 71st Precinct in Crown Heights as well as the predominantly black 88th and 106th precincts and who has always enjoyed a good relationship with the black community, the lessons of the riots were about police tactics, not race relations. Afterward, he played a key role in writing an NYPD training manual for handling disorders that is still used today.

“We’re light-years ahead of where we were then as far as our ability to amass resources, to bring trained personnel to the scene of a potential disorder, and to quickly get control of a situation. You see it all the time now. We have what we call a level-one mobilization, and we use it now for counterterrorism. The capacity to respond is there, and you’ve seen it also with the demonstrations that have been taking place recently.”

The city’s race relations are also light-years ahead of where they were twelve years ago. Surely September 11 has played a role in this, creating a greater feeling of community across racial and ethnic lines. But there are other factors as well. During his successful campaign in 1989, Dinkins liked to say, “The tone and climate of the city does get set at City Hall.” Though tone is not all that matters, Kelly couldn’t agree more. “I don’t want to criticize previous administrations,” he says, criticizing previous administrations, “but you have to communicate. And right now there’s a feeling of openness.”

Brooklyn Burning