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Policeman of the World

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Policeman of the World

Ray Kelly defends his record as New York’s longest-serving top cop. September 18, 2015
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City by Ray Kelly (Hachette Books, 336 pp., $28)

I made my first visit to New York City in 1985. At that time I’d been with the Los Angeles Police Department just long enough to begin to grasp the complexities of being a cop in America’s second-largest city. After a single day, I was staggered at the thought of what it would take to be a cop in New York. It was the early evening of December 16, and as I strolled through Midtown I passed Sparks Steakhouse, on 46th Street between Second and Third Avenues. (I took note of the place because, before becoming a police officer, I had worked at a restaurant with a similar name in Los Angeles.) Watching the television news only an hour later, I saw the report that Paul Castellano and Thomas Bilotti, prominent members of the Gambino crime family, had been shot to death—rubbed out, if you will—in front of that very restaurant within minutes of my walking by.

Castellano and Bilotti were but two of the 1,386 people murdered in New York that year, a staggering figure at the time, but one that pales when compared with the 2,262 people who met a violent end in New York in 1990. Many New Yorkers thought the city ungovernable, well beyond the ability of police to control the violence and disorder. Politicians, too, were seen by many as impotent, and today those years are referred to—not fondly and not entirely accurately—as the “Dinkins era,” for David Dinkins, who served as Gotham’s mayor from 1990 to 1993.

In his new book, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City, Ray Kelly defends Dinkins, who in 1992 appointed Kelly to be commissioner of the New York Police Department. Kelly observes that Rudy Giuliani, who succeeded Dinkins as mayor, and William Bratton, who succeeded Kelly as police commissioner, get most of the credit for arresting the crime wave—and reversing it. But as Kelly writes, it was he and Dinkins who again made law enforcement a priority for city government, and it was through their Safe Streets, Safe City program that the necessary funds were secured to expand the NYPD and begin to restore order.

As it turned out, 1990 was the high-water mark for murders in New York; the numbers began to decline in subsequent years, though not quickly enough to earn Dinkins a second term. “From his first year in office,” Kelly writes, “Mayor Rudy Giuliani reaped huge benefits from those new hires. He’d run for mayor on a heavy law-and-order platform, portraying David Dinkins as a hapless protector of New York. And yet it was the Dinkins administration that handed Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton the single most valuable tool for turning campaign rhetoric into practical policy.”

In Vigilance, Kelly draws a further distinction between himself and Bratton, who succeeded him a second time when New York’s political winds again swept Kelly from his office at One Police Plaza. Though he takes no cheap shots at Bratton, Kelly points out that it was Bratton who made what appeared to be the politically expedient decision to endorse Democrat Mark Green in the 2001 mayoral race, while Kelly endorsed Michael Bloomberg, who at the time was still a Republican and considered a longshot to win. Kelly writes that he expected nothing for his endorsement and nothing was offered, but when Bloomberg won the election, he returned Kelly to the top post in the NYPD.

During this second stint as commissioner, Kelly reshaped the NYPD, but not without controversy. The World Trade Center still lay in ruins when he returned to office on January 1, 2002, and he was certain that Islamic terrorists would again strike at New York City. He had been police commissioner in 1993 when the World Trade Center was rocked by a truck bomb, an attack that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. In the wake of 9/11, Kelly was unwilling to depend on the FBI and other federal agencies to keep the city safe from further attacks, so he took the unheard-of step of creating an intelligence and counterterrorism bureau within the NYPD, one that would use its own assets and conduct its own investigations without relying on permission and resources from Washington. NYPD detectives were stationed in London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Singapore, and other cities, where they were charged with gathering information on potential plots against New York City. “The terrorists knew no national boundaries,” Kelly writes. “Why should the New York City police?”

Kelly details 15 terror plots targeting New York that were foiled, in whole or in part, by the efforts of the NYPD. But he reminds us, in his description of Faisal Shahzad’s May 2010 attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, that despite all your best efforts, sometimes you have to hope for good luck. Shahzad had drawn no attention from law enforcement when he parked and walked away from a Nissan Pathfinder outside the Minskoff Theatre at Seventh Avenue and West 45thStreet. A street vendor saw smoke coming from the SUV and alerted a mounted police officer. The area was evacuated and the truck was found to contain a bomb composed of fertilizer, propane tanks, and containers of gasoline. It was only through Shahzad’s incompetence that the bomb failed to explode. Working with the FBI, NYPD detectives acted quickly to identify Shahzad. They found him at Kennedy Airport on a plane that was only minutes from takeoff. He was headed to Pakistan via Dubai.

If the NYPD’s role in counterterrorism caused controversy for Kelly, it was minor compared with the furor over another of his signature endeavors, the one commonly—and, according to Kelly, erroneously—labeled as “stop and frisk.” Crime kept falling in New York, far outpacing the declines seen in other cities. In 2012, the city experienced 414 murders. In 2013, there were just 332. This reduction was brought about by policing that was aggressive, to be sure, but entirely legal, says Kelly. Still, the NYPD faced several lawsuits over the practice, cases that were consolidated and heard before U.S. district judge Shira Scheindlin. In August 2013, she ruled for the plaintiffs, stating that the NYPD had violated the Fourteenth Amendment by conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner.

Throughout Vigilance, Kelly maintains a careful level of circumspection in detailing his rivalries. No one takes it on the chin here, with the notable exception of Scheindlin. On October 31, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a stinging rebuke to Scheindlin, staying her ruling and removing her permanently from the case. Kelly found this turn of events “deeply gratifying.” His gratification was short-lived, however. Upon taking the mayor’s office in 2014, Bill de Blasio dropped the appeal.

Kelly ably defends his policies and fears their undoing, but he fails to note that there were critics of those policies even within the NYPD. Former police captain John Eterno, for example, wrote in the New York Times in 2012 that “[t]he pervasive use of stop-and-frisk tactics that have deeply alienated racial and ethnic minorities in New York City is only one symptom of a broader dysfunction in the Police Department.” Kelly’s relentless focus on ever-increasing “productivity” goals—i.e., arrests and summonses—drove a wedge between the police and the citizens, says Eterno, and led to a form of corruption in which statistics were fudged so as to maintain the appearance of falling crime. But as Heather Mac Donald has noted, Eterno’s claims were dubiously sourced and ignored the NYPD’s commitment to the integrity of the data it collects. Moreover, the NYPD’s crime statistics were supported by data from the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey and auto-insurance claims.

Vigilance offers a compelling look at a man who served his country as an officer in the Marine Corps, and his city as its longest-serving police commissioner. Ray Kelly left a legacy of record-low crime in New York. Let’s hope that legacy can be preserved.

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