As the longest serving NYPD commissioner, Ray Kelly diversified the department, created a world-class anti-terrorism operation, and oversaw a proactive program of community policing that contributed to a dramatic reduction of violent crime. In a lively memoir, Kelly recounts his long career and answers his critics. It is a compelling read that reminds us that safety and liberty are counterweights that public officials must balance and periodically adjust to preserve our character as a free people.
Born in 1941 in Manhattan, Kelly is the youngest of five children. The book entertainingly describes the Upper West Side neighborhood of his youth, his education in the Catholic schools, summers in Island Park, and even his first mugging in Central Park.
Kelly attended Manhattan College, studying business and training in NYPD and Marine Corps cadet programs. Upon his graduation in 1963, Kelly was sworn in by both the NYPD and USMC. By 1965, he was deployed by the USMC to Vietnam, where he led amphibious-assault landing teams and served as a fire-support coordinator.
Back home in 1966, Kelly attended the Police Academy course, finishing first in his class. Because of rising crime rates and race riots, recruits were sent out on patrols. He writes that he “was finally home from the Marine Corps, but suddenly back on the battlefield.”
Upon his promotion to sergeant, the NYPD launched a new program of proactive policing in which plainclothes officers were sent onto the streets “to seek out the crime and arrest the criminals,” and not “wait around for radio calls.” Kelly was enthusiastic, writing that the program “sounded tailor-made for me.”
By the mid-1970s, budget cuts hit the NYPD hard, leading to 3,000 layoffs. Kelly was assigned to a Chelsea precinct. On one late tour, he manned the front desk, with just one officer guarding the prisoners and another in a patrol car. A man suddenly rushed into the stationhouse, shouting that a woman was being stabbed outside. Leaving his post, Kelly apprehended the assailant. “In that era,” Kelly writes, “the city was almost unguarded at times.”
Following several promotions and captaincies in troubled precincts in Brooklyn and Queens, Kelly gained the attention of Commissioner Benjamin Ward. Along the way, he found the time to earn two law degrees (St. John’s and NYU) and a MPA degree (Harvard). He admits that his constant striving took a toll on his family, with his wife, Veronica, often left to raise their two sons alone.
During the mayoralty of David Dinkins, Kelly was appointed first deputy commissioner. In August 1991, his deployment to the scene of the Crown Heights riots was widely seen as instrumental in ending the disturbance.
When he took office in 1989, Dinkins inherited the highest crime rates in history. In 1990, murders reached an all-time high of 2,254. With the assistance of Deputy Mayor Milton Mollen, Dinkins obtained the funds from Albany to hire thousands of new NYPD officers. The Safe Streets, Safe City Program followed. Soon thereafter, violent crime in New York declined. Since 1990, the number of murders has dropped by 85 percent, rapes by 50 percent, burglaries by 85 percent, and robberies by 80 percent.
In October 1992, Dinkins named Kelly the NYPD commissioner, a post that he filled for the last 15 months of Dinkins’ mayoralty. In addition to Safe Streets, Safe City, one of Kelly’s key priorities was diversifying the NYPD. He writes that a multicultural city is best served by a police force that reflects all of its communities.
Following posts in the federal government and private business, in 2002 Kelly was again appointed as NYPD commissioner and served during the entire mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg. Diversity in the ranks continued to be a priority. Kelly writes that between 2002 and 2013, the NYPD became more diverse, less white, more educated, and employed officers from 106 different countries.
After the 9/11 attacks, Kelly inherited a NYPD that devoted few officers to anti-terrorism. Convinced that the federal government would never adequately protect New York, Kelly developed an anti-terrorism unit that came to employ over 1,000 officers. In gripping detail, Kelly recounts how 16 terrorist plots were foiled during his second stint as commissioner.
Kelly’s tenure was controversial. Minorities criticized the stop and frisk method of community policing as racial profiling. Although the method was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, NYPD statistics showed that between 2004 and 2012, blacks and Hispanics made up 83 percent of the stops, even though they made up only 50 percent of the city. Furthermore, the number of stops grew dramatically during the Bloomberg years, from 97,000 in 2002 to 685,000 in 2011. Meanwhile, 88 percent of the stops turned up no crime. Critics charged that the stops mostly involved men of color because the NYPD brass viewed them as the “right people to stop.”
Kelly denies that his stop and frisk program was discriminatory. In addressing the racial disparity issue, he notes that over 83 percent of suspects reported by crime victims were black and Hispanic. In Kelly’s view, there was a close correlation between: (a) the types of people stopped; and (b) those persons who were reported as having committed the crimes. He believes that stop and frisk helped to drive down crime in New York, and constitutes a “valuable, appropriate, and legal tool of modern law enforcement.”
In 2007, New York stop and frisk victims brought a class action alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. In 2013, Southern District Judge Shira Sheindlin presided over a contentious bench trial, ruling that the NYPD had violated the plaintiffs’ rights. In so doing, she also ruled that new NYPD training programs be instituted and body cameras be tested.
Explosively, the book criticizes Scheindlin as manipulative (she suggested that plaintiffs bring the case and mark it as “related” to another case she was handling) and biased (she unfairly favored plaintiffs).
While Kelly’s attack on the judge as manipulative is too strident, her actions led to her removal from the case and the adoption of new rules on the assignment of “related” cases.
Kelly’s bias charge misses the mark. Scheindlin’s central conclusion was that “[i]t is impermissible to subject all members of a racially defined group to heightened police enforcement because some members of that group are criminals.” It was a courageous holding in a difficult case that the city knew was going badly and should have settled.
Preserving freedom is a fragile balance between the needs of public safety and personal liberty. When violent crime rates were high (1960s to mid 1990s), the balance tilted toward public safety. By 2013, when crime rates had reached historic lows, the tilt needed readjustment toward personal liberty. Stops have since fallen below 60,000, with no rise in crime.
Kelly’s tenure as NYPD commissioner was that of a man in action, sometimes controversially. As he worked his way up the ranks, New York was bedeviled by violent crime and business flight. During his two commissionerships, however, New York again became a vibrant and growing place. In material part, this was a product of improved public safety. This book chronicles that legacy.