Ray Kelly on gun control, and what expectations are ‘unrealistic’

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The Associated Press, and its award-winning series on an NYPD surveillance program?

A "terrible job."

A federal judge's argument against the Cleans Halls program?

"Elitist."

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Support for stop-and-frisk as a litmus test for the next mayor?

"Absolutely."

Shopping for a drone?

"No."

For a little over an hour, New York City's longest serving police commissioner, Ray Kelly, spoke on Manhattan's East Side about his lengthy tenure as head of the NYPD. 

Outside the 92nd Street Y, where Kelly appeared, there were about a dozen protesters who, at one point, chanted " Ray Kelly, Ray Kelly, you can't hide. We charge you with genocide."

The moderator for the evening, Stephen Adler, the editor-in-chief of ThompsonReuters, made clear he would address some of the controversies surrounding Kelly's policies.

He started off, though, with a joke. In introducing Kelly before he appeared on stage, Adler said the NYPD's annual budget of $4.5 billion "is larger than the national budget of North Korea. Although they have nukes and we're not sure about the police department."

Moments later, Kelly appeared, wearing one of his famously large neck ties (purple) and in a gray suit with the jacket buttoned. Around his left ankle, what appeared to be a gun holster was visible. His wife, Veronica, sat in the front row. She told me her husband was "selective" about appearances like this, but that she greatly enjoyed them.

After Adler asked Kelly about a New York Post report that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had already decided to keep Kelly in place if she were elected mayor, a young man in the audience stood up.

"Ray Kelly, you are responsible for stop-and-frisk, a racist, immoral and unconstitutional policy," the young man, one of the few black people in attendance, said. A security guard wearing a sweater with a 92Y logo led him out of the room.

Moments later, an older white man on the other side of the room stood up and compared Kelly to Bull Connor, the infamous Civil Rights-era public-safety commissioner from Birmingham, Alabama.

During the outbursts, Kelly wore a bemused look, and barely moved.

(Afterward, one woman said she saw the two protesters waiting together on the ticket-holders line. According to this witness, the two men separated, taking seats on opposite ends of the room, but in the middle of their respective rows, presumably to make it harder for security to reach them.)

As for that Post story, Kelly denied there was any agreement and said he was focusing on his current job.

Asked why, given his popularity, he hadn't sought elective office, Kelly said, "I'm trying to stay away from that. I have no plans to run for public office."

Adler asked Kelly about gun control, and what he thought "the law should be."

Kelly, a former Marine and beat cop who, Adler said, now has two law degrees and is the most educated police commissioner New York ever had (presumably including Teddy Roosevelt, a famously voracious reader and researcher and prolific author who graduated from Harvard, but did not have two law degrees), said, "We are going to have guns in this country. Anybody who has a dream about eliminating guns in this country" is mistaken, because Supreme Court rulings have made it clear that "was simply not possible."

"The reality is we are going to have the 200 to 300 million guns in this country for a long time," Kelly said, adding that he was "pessimistic about any major changes happening" to restrict the number of guns in America.

"You may see something about the assault weapons ban resurfacing," and that may include restrictions on high-capacity magazines. "But the reality is, that on the streets of this city, and major cities throughout America, people are being shot with handguns. And most of the talk is about assault weapons. It's a good thing, don't get me wrong. I think they have to be greatly restricted. But it's not going to have a significant impact on the streets of New York. I think we'll see a lot of rhetoric. I don't think we'll see much of significance coming out of Congress. I hope I'm wrong."

Kelly said he supported Michael Bloomberg's federal gun control agenda, was supportive of Andrew Cuomo's proposed assault weapons ban, and looked forward to seeing the forthcoming gun-control recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden.

But gun-ownership protections are here to stay, he said, as is the flow of illegal guns into New York from other cities and states.

"We're going to be plagued by this issue for a long time to come, in my judgment," said Kelly.

One of the major policies used to deter gun violence, Kelly has said, is the NYPD's policy of "engagement," and particularly, stop-and-frisk.

At the 92nd Street, Kelly said he found some of the criticism of the policy understandable, saying he himself wouldn't want to be stopped. But he said that the technique was key to the NYPD's overall crime-fighting strategy, and disputed the idea that it's being applied too indiscriminately.

"People want to say the number has increased dramatically from where it was, say, 10 to 12 years ago. That's simply not the case," Kelly said. "We weren't able to record it 10 to 12 years ago and quite frankly, it wasn't being reported accurately. In a way, we are being criticized for better record-keeping."

Later, after Kelly spoke abut the use of new technology to help his department, which has 6,000 fewer officers than when he took it over when Bloomberg got to city hall, Adler asked repeatedly if Kelly would like to use "drones" and if he was actively looking to acquire one.

"You're really into this drones [topic]," Kelly said. The audience laughed.

"I want to know on their behalf," Adler said, prompting more laughter from the audience. "Are you actively looking at it?"

"No," said Kelly.

"OK," Adler said.

"Good," replied Kelly.

"Glad you cleared that up," said Adler.

The audience laughed some more.

The humor faded when Adler asked Kelly about the his anti-terrorism surveillance program, which the Associated Press wrote extensively about. Kelly has repeatedly said the stories were inaccurate and unfair. Adler, as head of Reuters, is a competitor to the A.P., and he refrained from saying what he thought of the series of articles, which won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting.

"The series of articles were full of mistakes, half-truths, a terrible job," Kelly said. "It was meant to besmirch and diminish the reputation" of the NYPD.

Kelly said the laws surrounding his department's ability to conduct surveillance, known as the Handschu Agreement, were amended after September 11, 2001 and that no laws were ever broken.

Under the new laws, Kelly said, they could "go to any public meeting" and "go to any web site, that was accessible to the public and do reports and to do assessments of areas" which "were all authorized under the Handschu Agreement."

"It looks to me they wrote 15 articles and then, all of a sudden, they found out about Handschu, because we had answered it, and then they started talking around it. But it didn't stop them. These reporters were hyping their own stories, tweeting 'How come there's no investigation?' I don't know, you're in their in the press business, do you think that's appropriate? I'm not asking you, it's a rhetorical question, if you think that's the way to go."

Adler said, "I never criticize my colleagues at the A.P. It's just not the thing to do. But I'm really interested in your views."

Kelly, not getting any affirmation from his host on stage, said, "OK," prompting some laughter from the audience, and continued with his criticism of the A.P.

The stories were "totally unfair, unjustified. It was the product, perhaps, of some jealously in some other agencies."

When asked about the recent federal judge's ruling which said the NYPD's Clean Halls program was unconstitutional because it was allowing cops to stop, and sometimes arrest, some residents in some parts of the Bronx with little cause.

Kelly said the program was started in the 1990s and targeted "people loitering in hallways in poor neighborhoods, in poor houses. Most people here live in a private house or have a doorman, and gives them a certain modicum of protection. But that doesn't happen in poor neighborhoods. People go in, hang out in hallways, they use drugs or smoke pot. People who join the program did it voluntarily. This is all landlords asking the department to do this."

He said, "I think this it's kind of elitist in nature" to have "New York, Manhattan-centric attorneys that are going to tell the people in the Bronx that this is not good for you."

Kelly said the decision is going to be appealed.

Toward the end of the evening, Adler read from a series of questions submitted by the audience on small white cards. "What's the one question people should ask the mayoral candidates to make sure they're going to take the right approach to the police?" Adler asked.

"I'd like to have them take a retrospective on what happened the last 11 years, during the Bloomberg administration and commit to continuing these policies and practices," Kelly said. He added, "We're going to continue to be in the bull's-eye and we need a commitment from whoever comes down the road here to continue to keep the city safe."

"And would you include stop-and-frisk as one of the litmus-test questions?" Adler asked.

"Absolutely, of course," said Kelly.

For a final question, Adler asked Kelly what job Kelly would like to have if he were no longer the NYPD commissioner.

"One of those greeters at Wal-Mart," Kelly said, smirking. The audience laughed and applauded.

"We'll give you that as a freebie and ask for an answer," said Adler "Unless that's it."

"That's it," said Kelly.

Wrapping up the event, Adler said, "We want to thank the future greater at Wal-Mart …"

Kelly mingled with the audience after the event, shaking hands and taking pictures with well-wishers. Some were parents of police officers. At least one was an actor who swore he met Kelly either on stage or back stage at a Broadway play. Kelly, politely, said the man was mistaken.

I asked Kelly more about his pessimism about the passage of meaningful new gun-control measures.

"There are people who say 'ban all guns, why do you have guns in civilized society,' whatever," he said. "That is a totally unrealistic view..."

"We have 300 million guns. They're going to be here. Even if you stopped sales tomorrow, couldn't buy a new gun tomorrow, you're going to have 300 million guns. That is a reality of life in this country. And that is what cops have to face in this city and other cities. Guns are there. You're not going to eliminate them, is my point."

I asked if there was an opportunity for him, in his capacity as head of a department that is profoundly affected by the flow of illegal guns from places outside New York with looser gun regulations, to get involved in lobbying lawmakers in other states.

He said he doubted anyone would listen.

"It's such a complex issue in so many states," Kelly said. "There's a different mindset as far as guns are concerned. I'd certainly be willing to talk to people but they're not knocking on my door."

Kelly was one of the last people to leave the auditorium. While he was on stage, he told what he called his "92nd Street Y story." While working as an undercover officer once, he was in the backseat of a yellow cab being driven by another officer. He asked the driver to pull over at the 92nd Street Y so he could use the bathroom. When he returned, a man carrying a television tried entering the car. He had just robbed an apartment across the street, Kelly recalled, laughing.

After Kelly took a few photographs with well-wishers, he took the elevator one flight down to leave the building.

As he was getting into his black S.U.V., a yellow cab drove up and stopped. The driver yelled something encouraging to Kelly, shook his hand and drove off.

UPDATE: DNAInfo's Jill Colvin has more on Kelly's remarks about drones, noting that he said he could conceivably see a use for them, even though the department is not now using them or looking into acquiring them.

Here's the transcript of the relevant exchange:

Adler: The question of drones often comes up, so one of the things I wanted to ask you is do we have drones in the If not, would you like to have them?

Kelly: Well, you can go to Brookstones and buy a drone for $250.

Adler: I have seen that actually. Yeah, they're very -- so you have done that, I must —

Kelly: We have.

Adler: I have to assume. But seriously, is that a direction? I know you're high-tech oriented. Is that a direction?

Kelly: Let me say this. They are used in law enforcement in other places in America, certainly in wide-open spaces. They are used down on the border. I used to be the customs commissioner too and I'm very much aware of what goes on at the border. The drones have been very helpful in addressing some of the issues on the border. But —

Adler: So is that something you're looking at for New York?

Kelly: Well, he only — there is a lot of air traffic. The only thing we would do is maybe use one of the cheap $250 ones to take a look and see the size of a demonstration or something along those lines. Adler: Are you doing that now?

Kelly: No.

Adler: So drones aren't being used at all by the NYPD?

Kelly: No.

Adler: Okay. But you see that as a direction that might be worthwhile?

Kelly: Anything that helps us. As I said, we're down 6,000 police officers. Anything that could be a force multiplier, we're looking to use it. Sure.

Adler: So is there an active investigation looking into —

Kelly: You're really into these drones, are you?

Adler: I'm into drones, yeah. I want to know. They want to know. I want to know on their behalf. So, are you actively looking into it?

Kelly: No.

Adler: Okay, fine. Good. Wow. I'm glad you cleared that up.

Kelly: Cleared it up in your head.