Ray Kelly's Wars

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, June 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ray Kelly's Wars


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey

The New YorkCity Police Commissioner is beating the enemy--if only the feds don't get in his way.

There'd been a crucial break in one of Manhattan's most infamous unsolved murders. One after another, reports from NYPD detectives popped up on the New York City police commissioner's BlackBerry. Ray Kelly was on a quick work trip to London, and here, by the Thames in the predawn hours of May 24, the case of a little boy who had disappeared 33 years earlier suddenly loomed large on his handheld screen. It was a grim flashback to times when New York was a nearly bankrupt metropolis with streets that reeked of refuse and echoed with gunfire. As the sun rose in London, the emails kept coming.

Kelly, indefatigable even at 70, had spent the previous 48 hours meeting with British police and intelligence officials, studying security and antiterrorism preparations for the upcoming London Olympics. There had been discussions about underwear bombs undetectable by magnetic scanners and Scotland Yard had showed off its collection of infernal devices cobbled together by terrorists: explosives disguised as basketball shoes and computer-printer cartridges. It was the stuff of 21st-century nightmares.

Since he took over as police commissioner in the aftermath of 9/11, Kelly's most critical mission has been to thwart all terrorist threats against the city, and he's aimed to do that, in some cases, even before a plot is entirely clear to the plotters themselves.

Kelly's "intelligence-led" and "pro-active" policing has observed the spirit of the law but pushed its limits, provoking outrage from civil libertarians. He has been idolized by the New York tabloids for keeping the city safe, and excoriated by The New York Times for abusing his authority. A federal court recently opened the way for a class-action suit to curtail the cops' hundreds of thousands of "stop and frisk" encounters with young men, mostly blacks and Hispanics. "We are doing everything we reasonably can under the law to protect the city," says Kelly, emphasizing "under the law." Critics say the policy drives a wedge between police and the community; the police claim it keeps guns off the streets in a city where 96 percent of shooting victims are black or Hispanic. By the cops' count, their searches turn up 8,000 knives and other weapons every year, including about 600 to 700 handguns. (They note that since 2006, a majority of the police force has been made up of minorities.)

Kelly's assertive style of policing has also created a bureaucratic battle with agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who believe Kelly's intelligence-gathering operatives are stepping on bureau turf.

The record, however, is hard to argue with: at least 14 full-blown terrorist attacks have been prevented or failed on Kelly's watch. Beyond terrorism, New Yorkers are safer today than anyone might have thought possible 20 years ago. The homicide rate--the most reliable indicator of conventional violent crime--is a small fraction of what it was in 1990, when 2,245 people were killed in New York City. The homicide rate is also substantially lower now than it was when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly took over from Mayor Rudy Giuliani's "zero tolerance" regime in 2002. New York's homicide rate last year was 6.1 per 100,000 inhabitants. Philadelphia, highly praised by The New York Times for giving up its stop-and-frisk policy, had a rate more than three times higher, at 20.7 per 100,000.

The pugnacious police commissioner, who looks bulldog-tough even in bespoke suits, has Bloomberg's strong backing, and refuses to bend to others' opinions if he thinks they'll compromise his goals. Whether his cops are infiltrating suspected terrorist groups (many, but not all of them, Muslim) or questioning and patting down people on the street, he makes no apologies. Not surprisingly, Kelly's critics often call him arrogant--a charge that, when I put it to him, made him stiffen a little. …

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