The gentleman commissioner: Why NYPD controversies never seem to touch Ray Kelly

Ray Kelly at the West Indian American Day Parade. (Azi Paybarah)
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On Monday afternoon, a few hours after he stood beside Mayor Bloomberg at an anti-gun press conference, then sat in on drums at the West Indian American Day Parade with the NYPD band, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly went to find Jumaane Williams.

Williams, a 35-year-old, African-American councilman with long dreadlocks and an earring, had been handcuffed near the West Indian Day Parade, along with Kirsten John Foy, a top aide to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. The two had been arrested after a dispute with officers over whether they had the requisite ID to cross a “frozen zone” on their way to the Brooklyn Museum.

“The commissioner came to where we were, actually, after we were released to personally find out what happened,” Williams said at a press conference the next day. “I’m not sure if he said exactly it was wrong, but he did seem very apologetic that it occurred.”

“I talked to him,” Kelly said to an impromptu gaggle of reporters at a separate event. “I got their version of what happened. I said that we would do an investigation. I spoke to the councilman. I spoke to Mr. Foy. I spoke to the Council speaker. I spoke to the public advocate.”

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In the past 10 years, that kind of aggressive, self-assured outreach, combined with Kelly’s personable affect, has improved the police department's image. Kelly's NYPD, like Kelly himself, has shown itself to be a force capable of preserving (and even improving upon) Giuliani-era crime rates without alienating half the city in the process.

But Kelly, 70, has actually managed something even more impressive when it comes to his own reputation, accruing credit over the last decade for the department’s many successes—including a drastic drop in murders and, more conspicuously, a complete absence of terror attacks—while remaining personally, politically immune to the inevitable problems of the country’s largest police force.

Nothing, it seems, can touch Ray Kelly.

The morning after the parade incident, at a crowded, rainy press conference atop the steps of City Hall, Williams held up grainy posterboards that appeared to show NYPD officers menacing the two men. One by one, nearly a dozen speakers—including no fewer than four likely 2013 mayoral candidates—criticized the police department for a stop-and-frisk policy they said promotes an institutional culture of racism. Williams accused the department of a “bald-faced lie” for claiming that an officer had been punched during the incident, as alleged in a statement the night before from Kelly’s spokesman and top aide, Paul Browne.

But none of the speakers blamed Ray Kelly.

“Let me just say it wasn’t a police commissioner who threw me to the ground and shoved my face into the grass,” said Foy, who was shown being tripped by an officer in a video distributed by the public advocate’s office. “It was a rank-and-file police officer. So somewhere there’s a disconnect. Ray Kelly is a man of honor, he’s a man of good character. And somehow that’s not trickling down, not getting down to the rank-and-file. And that’s where the problem is. The leadership on the rank-and-file level is not mimicking the leadership at the top.”

For any other commissioner, 2011 might have made for a long year. In the spring, a vast ticket-fixing scandal implicated dozens of officers in the Bronx. The summer tabloids feasted on the trial of two cops accused of a raping an inebriated woman in her Lower East Side apartment. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the department had developed a quasi-C.I.A. spy network that included “mosque crawlers” trolling the Muslim community.

But on Tuesday morning, even after a long weekend in which an astounding 67 people were shot (and 13 killed) in New York City, including two of his officers, Kelly—in a dark tailored suit and a pink tie—exuded the calm confidence of a man who enjoys the fawning approbation of his boss, the overwhelming support of elected officials and, perhaps most importantly, the poll-tested approval of the general public.

He hit an all-time high in May with an extraordinary 81 percent approval rating. In July, a poll showed him as the leading hypothetical mayoral candidate for 2013. (Kelly has said that he has no interest in running.)

Kelly is not a terribly emotive person, but he is clearly pleased with the way things are going.

“I believe the tactics and strategies we use are effective,” he told a small group of reporters inside Cipriani Wall Street, after a speech by Michael Bloomberg citing the city’s progress since September 11, 2001. “Shootings are down this year. Murders are down this year. Of course they’re way down from what they were. Crime is down 35 percent in the last 10 years. So what we’re doing is generally working. Crime is going down with fewer resources in a city whose population is increasing.”

The numbers make it difficult to argue with Kelly’s effectiveness as a crime-fighter, even as he continues to implement controversial Giuliani-era policies like stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately targets black and Latino youth, and oversees an unprecedented expansion of the department’s surveillance of Muslim communities, as detailed by the Associated Press last week.

Even when Kelly has come in for criticism on these practices, it has usually come with qualifications.

“I think he has been good on many issues," Williams said in response to a question at the press conference. "He has also been very responsive to me on the violence in my community. He has been horrendous when it comes to stop-and-frisk issues. And he has been horrendous when it comes to dealing with young black and Latino males in New York City.”

“We’re quickly moving to an apartheid situation here in the city of New York where we don’t recognize the civil liberties and the civil rights of all New Yorkers,” said Representative Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn, during her remarks at the same event.

Even as she offered such forceful criticism of the police department, Kelly was excepted: Clarke suggested she might call for the U.S. Justice Department to intervene, but did not favor a change in commissioners.

“You can’t characterize someone overall, when their performance has been one that has been impressive,” she said afterward. “There have been great things, particularly in light of 9/11, that the commissioner has been able to do. He has had a distinguished career in public service. However, the racial profiling, whether it’s in the Muslim community or in the black community, I mean come on. This is not Texas."

The two remain relatively friendly, despite her complaints.

“I said hi to him yesterday,” she said. “I like him! As a matter of fact he was an officer in my precinct. So he started out in my part of town. How we’ve gone this far with this policy, I don’t know.”

Kelly is a lifelong New Yorker who earned a Master's degree from Harvard as he came up through the ranks, making him the kind of intellectual cop who can appeal to elected officials across the spectrum. He is unfailingly accessible to them, and they like him for it.

“I think it’s because he’s a nice guy," said Councilwoman Letitia James after the press conference on Tuesday.

James, like Clarke, has backed Clarke’s call for Justice Department intervention, but has not called for Kelly to step down, or criticized him personally.

"He’s affable," James said. "He goes to a lot of the events all throughout the city of New York. Unfortunately it’s just not the same for, you know, the brass.”

As the event wound down, Councilman Charles Barron, from East New York, stood near the doors of City Hall behind the press corps, and shook his head as he listened to official after official praising the commissioner.

“That’s a contradiction," he said. "That’s hypocritical, because they don’t have the spine to speak against Kelly. The root of the problem is Commissioner Kelly. We already have a record 330,000 stop-and-frisks for the first six months of this year. This is a policy problem, not an individual personality problem. These police officers know they can do this and get away with it.”

(The number was actually 362,150 in the first half of 2011, which a 13.5 percent increase from previous period last year, according to WNYC, which also reported that 84 percent of the people stopped were either black or Latino, and that "nine out 10 stops did not result in any arrest or ticket.")

Barron said he wasn’t sure why the commissioner is more insulated from criticism than his predecessors, who came to personify the department's shortcomings and misdeeds.

“I don’t understand what it is with Kelly," Barron said. "Because Kelly has a way, like Bloomberg has a way, of sucking these leaders and bringing them in, and convincing them that he’s cool. He’ll visit their churches and he’ll meet with them, but the problem is Commissioner Kelly. And they need to call it for what it is.”

KELLY LEARNED THE ART OF OUTREACH DURING HIS FIRST tour as police commissioner under David Dinkins.

“He’s very good at that kind of stuff,” said Leonard Levitt, who for many years wrote the closely read "One Police Plaza" column for Newsday, and who has been a frequent (and lonely) critic of Kelly. “Back when he was commissioner under Dinkins the first time, he was going to black churches to recruit people to join the police force.”

Throughout his second stint, under Bloomberg, Kelly has undoubtedly benefited from what happened in the interim, when Rudy Giuliani set a low bar for community-police relations, refusing on principle to engage with NYPD critics and almost reflexively defending police personnel in alleged instances of brutality.

“I think that Giuliani’s rhetoric hurt him and hurt the police department,” said George Arzt, a political consultant who served as Ed Koch's press secretary. “I think that Ray has changed the atmosphere. You no longer hear ‘We own the night,’ or ‘It’s Giuliani Time.’

Upon taking office, the Bloomberg administration immediately set a different tone, with the new mayor sharing a handshake with Al Sharpton, in a highly visible message to the black community. The change was significant, if largely stylistic.

“Giuliani’s posture, even when he was making changes in response to criticism, was to say that he wasn’t,” said Robert Polner, who covered City Hall for Newsday during Giuliani’s second term and later edited the book America's Mayor, America's President?.

Where Giuliani always sought to side with officers accused of misconduct, Kelly has felt no compunction whatsoever about meting out discipline to wayward police officials, conducting swift investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and heaping opprobrium on bad apples. When news of the ticket-fixing broke, Kelly suggested officers were derelict in their duty to enforce the laws, announced an investigation, and eventually set up a special Court Monitoring Unit within Internal Affairs. In 2009, when the so-called "rape cops" were indicted on charges of rape, Kelly called them "a shocking aberration" and said their conduct was "outrageous;" after the verdict, he immediately stripped them of their badges.

And Kelly makes a point of reaching out to critics of the NYPD, even when he has no intention of yielding on policy.

Last year, at Medgar Evers College, Kelly sat down with a group of elected officials concerned about stop-and-frisk—including Adams, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, State Senator Marty Golden, and then-governor David Paterson—only to issue a blunt defense of the policy.

“The commissioner made it clear that his belief is, the reason we’re doing these large volumes of stop-and-frisks is because if we can get the target group who are committing crimes to think that any time they leave their house, they will be searched, they will be reluctant to carry a weapon,” recalled Adams. “We just said, that’s against the law, commissioner. And he said, well, we’re trying to save lives.”

“This was when Paterson decided to sign the legislation of stop- and-frisk,” Adams recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t believe what I just heard.’”

(Asked on Tuesday whether the stop-and-frisk policy bore any relationship to Williams’ detention, Kelly said: “Absolutely not.”)

But Adams was not prepared to call for a change at the top, at least not yet, hoping for a “philosophical change” first.

“Kelly was one of the great humanitarians in policing under David Dinkins,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to him that all of a sudden his philosophical understanding of the importance of community and police liking each other has changed. Sometimes the expeditious need of bringing down crime numbers bring out the worst in us. So instead of saying let’s just go seek out the bad guy, we get to the point of, ‘Let’s go get them all.’ If Kelly can’t philosophically change, then we need to have a leadership change at the top.”

Unlike Giuliani, who got rid of his first, high-profile police commissioner Bill Bratton a few months after Bratton appeared on the cover of Time, Bloomberg seems content to let Kelly act as the public face of the administration on law-enforcement matters.

To hear Levitt tell it, Kelly is more than capable of handling himself in that public role: "He’s smart. He’s got an aggressive public relations spokesman. He has a clean private life. And he also is working in the shadow of 9/11 so people are especially reluctant to criticize him. And he frightens people. People are afraid to criticize him because they know he will retaliate."

Levitt also said, “Every official in this town is afraid of him.”

AT A PRESS CONFERENCE JUST BEFORE THE PARADE on Monday, Bloomberg blamed the raft of shootings not on any failures of local policing, but on the scourge of out-of-state guns filtering into the city.

In turn, Kelly flatly declined even to entertain a question about the mayor’s handling of former deputy mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s arrest over a domestic altercation.

“No, I'm not going to get involved in this,” Kelly told a reporter who asked whether he would have liked some advance notice of Goldsmith’s exit.

The two go back to the very beginning of Bloomberg’s political career.

“Ray gave him a tutorial on the police department,” said Bill Cunningham, Bloomberg’s former communications director. “And more than that, Ray gave him the names of people up and down the ranks, and people who were retired from the police department, who Mike could talk to.”

“And Mike noticed when Ray went to a funeral after 9/11—as a former police commissioner—Mike noticed how police officers responded to him,” Cunningham said. “They stood at attention when they saw Ray coming, and he was no longer the police commissioner at that time.”

Cunningham did not remember any policy disagreements between Bloomberg and Kelly in the four years he was in the administration. “The only time there’s ever any disagreement is when it’s time to do a budget,” he said.

Kelly shares the mayor's desire for a data-driven city, dating back to when he managed the city Office of Management Analysis and Planning, way back when Ed Koch was mayor. That was the office that handled the NYPD’s statistics before CompStat.

“You do have these spikes in shootings and we’ll take a look at it,” the commissioner said on Tuesday, when asked what the city could learn from the violence over Labor Day weekend. “We do precisely that: we look at it and see where we had our resources deployed, if there’s anything we could have done differently.”

The mayor, for his part, has never wavered in his public confidence in Kelly.

The only thing the mayor had to say about reports that the NYPD had developed an aggressive counterterrorism operation that includes foreign outposts and the infiltration of local Muslim communities by “mosque crawlers” was that Kelly was doing what he had to do.

In his speech on Tuesday, Bloomberg said that Kelly “built the best counter-terrorism operation of any police force in the world.”

“And let me be very clear,” the mayor added. “We will continue doing everything possible to prevent another attack and keep New Yorkers safe.”

Kelly was no less confident.

“We’re doing what New Yorkers expect us to do,” Kelly told a crowd of reporters attempting to grill him about the AP stories. “I’ve never ever heard the expression ‘mosque crawlers.’ Anywhere. Like I said, we are doing everything pursuant to the Constitution.”

Pressed by a reporter as to why the program was kept secret for so long, Kelly said, “I don’t know that it was kept secret. Some things we have to do in confidence, obviously. I’m sure you’d agree with that, right?”

Kelly, barely audible over the loud strains of music, held court until there were no more questions, before walking away to shake hands with some of the other attendees.

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