The Twice-Top Cop

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.

Kelly began his working life as a delivery boy while he was still in high school. He joined the NYPD as a teenager in the police-cadet program and stayed with it. He literally worked his way from the very bottom of the department to the very top. And he did it with no relatives in the Police Department and no “hooks” – cop-speak for connections. Kelly has held some 25 different commands in the NYPD: He was a beat cop in East Harlem and a captain in Crown Heights. He worked in anti-crime and the organized-crime-control bureau. He did swat-team work and he was in special ops. And the whole time, he stayed in the Marine Corps reserves.

“I like the excitement of being a cop,” Kelly says. “The thrill of chasing people and arresting them. There is an aspect of this, of course, where you’re helping people and you really have an impact on people’s lives. You feel like you’re a participant, like you’re part of what’s happening.”

Kelly is polite, respectful, and even friendly in a cautious, military sort of way. But he can be tough to draw out. “Nobody really knows Ray,” says someone who’s been close to him for years. “He has good friends, longtime friends. But he has, like, a force field around him. You can see a tender moment. You can hear a candid remark. But you’ll never walk away saying I know that guy better than he knows himself. Having said that, he’s the most instantly likable person I’ve ever met. Everybody loves Ray.”

You can open a small window into Kelly’s soul by looking at the way he responds to criticism. Back when he was commissioner the first time, the late columnist Mike McAlary was killing him on a regular basis. Finally, Kelly couldn’t take it anymore. He’d had enough and decided he was going to put a stop to it. He got the word out that he was after McAlary, and actually went looking for him in the bars on Second Avenue where the writer was known to hang out.

But Kelly’s intent wasn’t to have a showdown, to storm in and kick McAlary’s ass. It was to talk to him. “I’d never even met him,” Kelly says now when I ask him about it. “I used to see him standing in the back at my press conferences, and he’d never say a word. I thought, This guy doesn’t even know me – why’s he saying these things about me? I have fairly substantial credentials. I think I’m the real deal,” he says, and then reconsiders, thinking out loud about the way this might sound. “Anyway, I thought we could work it out.” Kelly never did find McAlary’s bar stool, but the two men eventually talked and became good friends.

Though Kelly is too much of a gentleman to complain (at least publicly) that some history has been rewritten, and too much of a pragmatist to dwell on the past, it must drive him nuts to see his record as police commissioner in ‘92 and ‘93 repeatedly mauled, or simply dismissed. He gets credit only for the bad (the community-policing debacle and the horrible Michael Dowd corruption scandal, which led to the Mollen Commission, both of which he inherited) and none of the good (he added 6,000 cops to the force through the Safe Streets, Safe City program).

Kelly did have lousy timing. Through much of his brief tenure, Dinkins and Giuliani were locked in a tense campaign battle, which essentially tied Kelly’s hands. He couldn’t risk making waves. And unlike Bratton, Kelly did not have an unbridled mandate from his boss to go after crime and disorder. Controlling the streets was never a Dinkins priority.

It is an extremely well-kept secret, however, that it was Kelly – not Bratton and not Giuliani – who actually took care of that reviled icon of urban disorder, that onetime symbol of police and government impotence: the squeegee man. Kelly ordered a study and had just begun to implement his plan when he had to leave office because Giuliani won the election. “We walked in the door and picked up his plan to get rid of the squeegee guys,” says a member of Bratton’s team, “and we knew we had to finish it. It was great. So we did, and it makes Ray crazy when someone says Bratton or Giuliani is responsible for getting rid of the squeegee guys.” (In fairness to Bratton, he gives Kelly full credit in his book and whenever the subject comes up in conversation.)

But each time Bratton and his guys introduced a new strategy, they explained in copious detail why the old way (i.e., Kelly’s way) didn’t work. (How’s the narcotics unit going to catch anybody when they work nine to five, Monday to Friday? Guess what: The drug dealers work nights and weekends.) This infuriated Kelly and his supporters. They didn’t understand why Bratton couldn’t just move forward without dumping on the past. But it was Bratton’s management style. He believed you had to tell people why you were making changes.

“Ray’s heart is in the right place,” says a former member of Bratton’s team, “but he has this blind spot. He bought into the whole bureaucratic thing, like the community-policing morass. We came in and said let’s try something unique. Instead of community policing, we’ll go after the guns. We’ll go after the drugs. We’ll go after the homicides. And we’ll get to the community right after that, if they’re still alive.”

When Mayor-elect Giuliani was deciding whether to keep Kelly or give the job to Bratton, people familiar with the decision-making say there was one factor that weighed heavily. Giuliani wanted a grand gesture, a substantive and symbolic act to herald the beginning of a new era. One possibility was the firing of a handful of superchiefs at the top of the Police Department’s hierarchy. Insiders told Giuliani that Kelly would never do it.

“These guys were a bunch of old biddies; they were obstructionists,” says a member of Bratton’s team. “But Ray couldn’t bring himself to fire them. He should’ve done it when he first became commissioner, but he couldn’t. He’d come up through the ranks with them. He knew them for years. But he believed he could go around them. Of course he couldn’t. Ray came from the NYPD culture, and he believed a lot of the myths these guys were selling, because he’d heard them repeated his whole adult life.”

Bratton got the job, of course, and because he was an outsider, it was easy for him to get rid of the obstructionists Kelly couldn’t bring himself to fire. The irony was that once Bratton cleaned house, the guys he promoted to those jobs were Kelly’s best and brightest. The guys Kelly had handpicked. The guys he brought along as his personal cadre of advisers. Guys like John Timoney, Lou Anemone, and Mike Julian.

Kelly has a second chance now to create the kind of record he’d like to have, but to do that he needs to surmount some very serious obstacles. His first problem is, how does he top what’s been done over the past eight years? He’s going to have to create the impression – through accomplishment and effective public relations – that this is the Ray Kelly era.

“Ray can leave his mark,” says one insider, “by doing what Bratton was just starting to do, what Howard Safir never wanted to do, and what Kerik might’ve done if he’d had the time. Kelly’s the guy who can bring the department back to the people. He’s the guy who can make blacks, Asians, Hispanics, everybody feel that this is their department again. That it’s not an occupying army.”

Someone said to me that Kelly is actually the city’s third black police commissioner (along with Ben Ward and Lee Brown, whom he succeeded). He was only partly kidding. Kelly used to spend weekends visiting black churches, working on the relationship between the Police Department and the community. His credibility ran deep enough that in 1997, when Al Sharpton ran for mayor, even he said he wanted “someone like Kelly” as his police commissioner. “You can’t just sit back and tell the city’s diverse communities ‘We know what you need’ and then shove it down their throats,” Kelly says. “The department needs to make sure it has more validation about what it’s doing. Look, there are 140 different ethnic communities in this city, and they all want the best possible quality of life. Most of it is how you deliver the services.”

Communication is also the key, Kelly believes, when cops make a stop. He says he’s been involved in hundreds of stop-and-frisks himself, and the difference between a good stop and a bad one is talking, letting the subject know why he’s been stopped and exactly what’s going to happen. “But I will tell you right now that while I think good community relations are critical, I am absolutely committed to keeping crime down and certain strategies will remain in place,” Kelly says. “Like stop-and-frisks, which are a legitimate law-enforcement tool. It’s all in how they’re handled.”

John Timoney says he learned from watching Kelly in ‘92 and ‘93 just how critical police-community relations are, and he took those lessons and successfully employed them in Philadelphia. “You remember that madman who shot all those people on the Long Island Rail Road?” Timoney asks, suddenly thinking of a bizarre anecdote. “His name was Colin Ferguson and he left a kind of incoherent, rambling note in which he said he wanted to kill all the white people – except Ray Kelly.”

Kelly believes there is a window of opportunity in the aftermath of September 11 to capitalize on the good feeling toward the cops. He’s going to have to do this, however, while attempting to deal with a Police Department in crisis. Yes, the cops have performed spectacularly over the past eight years, and crime across all categories is down 64 percent. And yes, the cops were heroic on September 11 and have continued to do heroic work since then. But the NYPD is a tired police department, a department that has been pushed and stretched to its limits.

The department has been spending between $30 million and $50 million a month, month in and month out, on overtime. That money will simply not be there in the coming year. “Cops need to be weaned off overtime anyway,” one high-ranking official says. “They need to know they have to do their job and make arrests whether or not they get overtime.”

And for all of this remarkable above-and-beyond-the-call effort, the bill, both literally and figuratively, is about to come due – at precisely the same moment that Mayor Bloomberg has called for cuts. It is contract time, and the cops want to be compensated for the work they’ve done. Anything less than what they believe is fair – which will be an enormous problem given the budget deficit – could send the department spiraling into a deep funk.

Kelly will also have to face an unusual triple whammy on the personnel front. The NYPD is hemorrhaging talent. As much as 10 percent of the uniformed force could retire this year. The loss of these experienced cops would be tough for the department to absorb under the best of circumstances. But it’s losing people faster than it can bring in new recruits. On top of this, the department has perhaps as many as 3,000 more detectives than it actually needs. This means Kelly must find a way to shut down that pipeline – the primary means of rewarding cops who do good work is promoting them to detective – without killing incentive.

Cops are leaving in record numbers for essentially two reasons. With all of the heightened concern about security, private-sector job opportunities have opened up in an unprecedented way. More ominous is the Amadou Diallo scenario: Cops believe there is always a risk of being indicted for an action they might take while doing their job. Consequently, they’re not willing to gamble their pension by staying on the job once they’ve put in their twenty years.

Kelly believes that various legislative possibilities currently being debated that would allow cops to stay on and have their pensions guaranteed will take care of the exodus. On the recruitment front, he says, he will exploit the fact that New York is the advertising capital of the world by bringing on someone to specifically handle the department’s marketing efforts. He also believes improved community relations will send a welcoming message to potential recruits.

Many of the bedrock issues Kelly will face are a result of the department’s being run almost like a successful but badly managed corporation – badly managed in the sense that all the focus has been on greater and greater short-term profits (lower and lower crime stats) while no attention has been given to long-term planning. “You have to run the department like a business,” says Timoney. “But only up to a point. You have to remember that you always have an obligation for the long-term health of the organization. There are a lot of things other than crime that have to be dealt with in a big-city police department, and these have been neglected.”

In the case of the NYPD, it means failing to address significant issues – quality-of-life issues for cops – like the dismal condition of station houses. Many of the city’s police precincts are old, run-down, falling apart, and filthy. “Cops should be proud of where they work,” Kelly says. “Maybe we’ll seek private-sector help. There’s the adopt-a-school program, and maybe we can implement a variation of that.”

But as urgent as all of these issues are, Kelly will ultimately be judged by how well he executes what he calls his “three-C approach”: crime, counterterrorism, and community relations.

“The crime spikes in other cities are very real and very ominous,” says Dr. George Kelling, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Manhattan Institute, and a professor at Rutgers. “In Newark, they matched their murder numbers for all of last year in August. And the number of shootings is way up, too.”

There are signs that this may be a trend. In Boston, which has often been held up as an example of a city where crime has been reduced without heightening police-community tensions – as has happened in New York – murder was up 67 percent last year. For the same period, New York’s murder rate was down 12 percent. “Obviously, a police commissioner wants to keep crime down,” says Tom Reppetto, head of the Citizens Crime Commission. “But it’s especially true now because the public perception has been changed. The elites never believed the police could control or reduce crime. But because of the success of the last eight years, they do now. So everyone’s expectations are different.”

Terrorism may present the most difficult challenge of all. When Giuliani was elected, the mandate was clear: End the fear. The fear was of crime and disorder. Deputy police commissioner Jack Maple had an idea: If you tracked the crime and put little colored dots on a map so you knew where the crimes were taking place, all you’d have to do is put the cops where the dots were. Well, it worked. Immediately. Crime began to drop at unprecedented levels, and eventually the fear began to dissipate as well.

Now Ray Kelly has become police commissioner, and he, too, has a clear mandate: End the fear. Except this time, the fear isn’t of crime. “It’s fear of this amorphous force – terrorism,” says a former high-ranking member of the department. “Will a plane fly into my building? Will a truck-bomb explode while I’m taking my children to see the tree? Will a guy with a package strapped to his chest walk into a crowded deli? People are afraid of these things now, and you can’t put the cops on those dots ‘cause you don’t know where those dots are. So Ray has the same mandate Bratton had, but he’s chasing quicksilver.”

Kelly is, however, uniquely qualified for this task. He was police commissioner the first time the World Trade Center was bombed, back in 1993. Mayor Dinkins was in Japan when the buildings were attacked, so Kelly took the reins. “He was running the city, if not in actual fact, then at least on television,” says Reppetto. “When he appeared on TV after the bombing with his the-Marines-have-landed-and-the-situation-is-well-in-hand demeanor, the whole city was reassured. He has that aura. He’s strong, and it’s clear he’s in charge.”

Given this background, along with his vast experience navigating the Washington bureaucracy and his international law-enforcement work, Kelly has a shot at being the right man at the right time. And his sense of policing the city has clearly evolved as well.

On a rain-soaked afternoon a little more than eight years ago, Kelly and I sat drinking coffee in his office at One Police Plaza. Only weeks away from the end of his tenure as police commissioner, he was both frustrated and philosophical about the state of the city. He recognized the perception that things were out of control. He also recognized that the cops were the most visible agents of law enforcement and therefore the easiest to blame for the chaos.

He knew all the criticisms: not enough drug arrests; not enough quality-of-life arrests; cops don’t track down fugitives; cops aren’t tough enough. But he also believed that cops were neither the problem nor the solution. “I hope most people realize,” he told me then, “that the issue of crime is much broader than the Police Department. There are a lot of problems out there, root causes, that we in law enforcement are never going to solve.”

Over the past eight years, however, the Police Department has shown that the root cause of crime is criminals. And Kelly has learned along with everyone else. He knows that the genie is out of the bottle and that no matter how hard they rubbed it before 1994, they simply weren’t doing it the right way.

“Job No. 1 is to control crime and disorder,” he says now. “The resources are there, the systems are in place, and I believe we can continue to reduce the numbers.”

The Twice-Top Cop