After 11 Years, a Police Leader Hits Turbulence
The New York Times
By N. R. KLEINFIELD, AL BAKER and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
Published: February 3, 2012
Raymond W. Kelly has become New York’s longest-serving police commissioner.
(Michael Appleton for The New York Times)
The officers who stand sentinel over New York’s streets and run the station houses rarely intersect with the police commissioner. They see the man they call “boss” at Police Academy graduations, at promotions, on the news recapitulating the latest ugly crime or at police funerals. That is about it.
Mr. Kelly in 1994, helping train the police in Haiti.
Marcelo Salinas/Associated Press
So it was jarring recently when some commanders got e-mails from the boss with photos of vagrants taken by his personal staff. The messages cited “a condition that requires your immediate attention.” They specified no action, but officers said those highlighted sometimes later wound up in handcuffs.
The e-mails reminded some precinct commanders of the blanket control the commissioner exerts — even the ceremonial unit of anthem singers and pallbearers reports directly to him — and of his thirst for arrests, of almost any sort. They also reminded them of something quite contrary: While his presence is always sensed, it is unusual to have contact with a commissioner who seems to have reigned for eons.
But that is Ray Kelly.
After years of undeniable suc-cess, Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is going through turbulent times, confronted with a steady drip of troublesome episodes. They include officers fixing traffic tickets, running guns and disparaging civilians on Facebook, and accusations that the Police Department encourages officers to question minorities on the streets indiscriminately. His younger son has been accused of rape, though he has not been charged and maintains his innocence. On Thursday, in an episode that Mr. Kelly said concerned him, an officer killed an 18-year-old drug suspect who was unarmed.
At 70, Mr. Kelly has now run the 52,000-member department longer than any of the city’s 41 commissioners. Almost everything about him braids through the department’s interlocking workings. Yet many inside and outside the force wonder whether the pileup of scandals and his increasingly authoritarian use of power have diminished his once-towering stature.
In Mr. Kelly’s two tenures — 16 months in the early 1990s under Mayor David N. Dinkins, and since 2002 under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — he has now served 11 ½ years. Lewis Joseph Valentine presided for just shy of 11, from 1934 to 1945, during monstrous times, when organized-crime groups sanctioned hundreds of murders.
Mr. Kelly has many fans. His public approval numbers after years of low crime remain high: two-thirds of the city’s voters were pleased with his job performance in a December poll by Quinnipiac University.
Mr. Bloomberg continues to affirm his unbending faith. Asked if he had considered replacing Mr. Kelly, he said, “With God as my witness, never once.” While waving off interest, Mr. Kelly has been promoted as a 2013 mayoral candidate; political soothsayers are dubious he will run, however, and the suggestion is heard less often these days.
But even some of those who admire Mr. Kelly wonder if his prolonged tenure has changed him. And they wonder something else more ominous: Has it begun to damage the department?
“In many, many ways he’s been an outstanding commissioner,” said Eugene J. O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer. “There’s a danger in that job in staying too long. I think there should be a six-year term limit to the job.” He added, “I think a lot of what you do after six years is a rerun.”
A Remote Presence
Those who go back far enough generally agree that Mr. Kelly in his elongated encore is different from his first stint: less jocular, more controlling, less transparent.
He used to cook spaghetti for staff members in his office kitchen. He would let the police press corps inspect unloaded guns in his conference room, and brought doughnuts and coffee, but no longer. “He is not a regular guy anymore,” one commander said. “He doesn’t talk to the guys.”
The commander mentioned an officer, retiring after 30 years, and his final request: to meet the commissioner and shake his hand. It was done, but the commander wondered why it had not happened before.
Mr. Kelly’s autonomy is striking. A former senior member of the Bloomberg administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to disturb his relationship with the mayor, said he had never known an agency head with such sweeping, unchecked power, and who so intimidated other city officials. He said in budget meetings, when police cuts were suggested, Mr. Kelly would nod, but everyone knew the requests would be ignored or minimized. (The mayor disputed that.)
All police commissioners are remote to some extent. Ray Kelly these days seems to exude remoteness.
Some believe 9/11 is part of it — before and after the attack he has lived in Battery Park City, in the shadow of the towers. Others wonder about the perils of power in a cauldron-like job.
There are reasons he has lasted so long. Under his command, serious crime has dropped and remained remarkably low, even as austerity has reduced resources. When he returned in 2002, there were 587 murders. In each of the last two years, the count was in the low 500s.
He has made taking advantage of cutting-edge technology a top objective. He added thousands of black and Hispanic officers and, despite recent scuffles, has generally strengthened relations with minority communities, in part by regularly visiting black churches.
He has built a counterterrorism machine with tentacles in 11 foreign cities, irritating federal agencies. There has been no successful terrorist attack on his city while he has been commissioner. He has instead been engulfed in the past year largely by familiar police corruption story lines, of human beings succumbing to greed or audacity.
Over the past year, two officers charged with raping a woman were fired after being acquitted of rape but found guilty of official misconduct. A broad ticket-fixing scandal flared in the Bronx; when the accused officers were arraigned, hundreds of officers massed in protest, some denouncing Mr. Kelly. Eight current and former officers were charged with smuggling illegal guns. Narcotics detectives were accused of planting drugs on innocent civilians. An inspector needlessly pepper-sprayed four Occupy Wall Street protesters, invoking memories of the scrutiny and mass arrests of protesters during the 2004 Republican National Convention, and giving the nascent movement its first real prime-time moment.
Civil rights advocates have assailed the department’s expanded stops of minorities on the streets. Several officers denigrated West Indians on Facebook. Muslims have denounced the monitoring of their lives, as Mr. Kelly has dispatched undercover officers and informants to find radicalized youth.
This year began with the revelation that a film offensive to Muslims, which included an interview with Mr. Kelly, had been shown to many officers.
The other afternoon, Mr. Kelly was in the back seat of his car, traveling to an appearance. At turns defiant or preoccupied, he brushed aside the combustible year. He said the state of the department was “very good.” He said unsavory things happened in a big department that had always had dark corners. He said they were isolated.
“No, I don’t feel guilt, I don’t feel pain,” he said. “This is a business. It is a business like other businesses.”
He said: “We’re not going to make everybody happy because of what we do. We arrest people; we give summonses; we’re the bearers of bad news; we sometimes use deadly force.”
He added: “You do a good job, you do the best you can. The chips fall where they may.”
Has he held the job too long? “You don’t leave just to leave,” he said. “The question is, are you effective?”
A Victim of Success
Crime will never stop. Still, many officers feel Mr. Kelly acts as if it can. They find him intolerant of not just crime but also of mere suspicious behavior, to a degree unusual even for a police commissioner, who, after all, is judged on the safety of his city.
The mayor recently declared 2011 the 21st straight year in which major felonies fell. Yet these declines are verging on microscopic. In fact, some Kelly allies, like Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., believe that crime is inching up and that the numbers are being massaged.
Franklin E. Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied New York’s crime record, said, “In a funny sense, the department is and has been for some time a victim of its own success.” He added: “Anybody in that job has got to play a constant game of, ‘Can you top this?’ And that has been a hard game to play.”
An article of faith among the police is that minor arrests thwart more serious crimes. Yet as the city becomes safer, officers say they often feel pressured to do pointless arrests and ticket-writing, purely to please superiors.
There has been a stunning rise in so-called stop-and-frisks — 601,055 in 2010, compared with 97,296 in 2002 — and they occur overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods. The police say they select crime-ridden areas, regardless of racial composition. Public concern has not caused Mr. Kelly to relent.
Mr. Bloomberg said that he had discussed the practice “ad nauseam” with Mr. Kelly and that it was “one of the key ways to get guns off the street.”
State Senator Eric L. Adams, a former police officer, expressed alarm at this surge. He said his own teenage son was asked for ID at a movie theater. During Mr. Kelly’s first tenure, Mr. Adams said, “he believed in the beat cop. Joe Friendly Officer. Now not.”
The force has noticeably expanded what it deems valid grounds for arrest. Officers have snapped cuffs on people for small-scale marijuana possession, a ticketable offense (a Kelly directive a few months ago cut back such arrests after consistent increases), and transgressions that are not much more than antisocial behavior or code violations, like putting your feet on a subway seat.
In 2002, when the police made 338,789 arrests, 16,714 were for infractions or violations.
In 2010, when there were 422,982 total arrests, 32,033 were infractions or violations.
A Bronx patrol officer, who like other officers and commanders spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or of offending Mr. Kelly, echoed what many colleagues say: “Every month you’re expected to bring in a certain amount. If you don’t, they deny your days off, refuse annual vacation time. They do stuff to you.”
Top department officials have repeatedly denied the existence of quotas but have said managers are expected to establish minimum productivity goals.
Edward Conlon, a recently retired detective who has written tellingly of police work, said of Mr. Kelly: “I do think he tries to do what’s right, and what’s right by cops whenever he can. I’m not sure the rank-and-file always appreciates that, and may not till he goes.”
No Time for Vacations
Even friends find Mr. Kelly inscrutable. He is rarely expansive or publicly introspective. With his stubbled crew cut and muscled look, he is the picture of the prototypical police officer. Beneath his piercing eyes, a grimace appears to have been ironed onto his face.
His own ascent was always a good story. A city kid, he grew up on the Upper West Side. His father worked as a milkman, then on the docks, before landing a job with the Internal Revenue Service. His mother checked the dressing rooms at Macy’s. As a Marine, Mr. Kelly saw combat in Vietnam, then held every rank in the Police Department.
He is not much for joking around though his humor occasionally surfaces. When a retired detective casually inquired recently why he kept working, he told him it was for the dental plan.
Though Mr. Kelly’s encounters with officers are rare, Lowell Stahl, a chief who retired in 2008 after running the commissioner’s office for 18 years, said Mr. Kelly had his driver pull over when he saw an officer doing a good job and he would hand him one of the N.Y.P.D. hats and shirts he kept piled in the car.
He is attentive to the visual impact he has, favoring custom-made suits and Charvet ties. Yet he has relaxed the dress code for officers so they can wear cargo pants. Along with his wife, Veronica, he likes to crawl through the city’s social night life, his name often cracking the gossip columns.
In his 14th-floor conference room in One Police Plaza, screens on the wall pipe in street scenes captured by surveillance cameras. Each morning, he spends an hour talking with two aides about terrorist threats. Those who deal with him say he fully trusts only a few very close to him, like Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman.
Though Mr. Kelly has had his share, he rarely swaps war stories the way officers like to do. Except for a few long weekends, he has not had a vacation in years. He goes to bed knowing his security detail is under orders to wake him if an officer fires his weapon or is shot.
Mr. Kelly said, “You can’t micromanage an organization of 50,000 people.” Yet many feel he comes awfully close.
He has flattened the department so almost everything reports to him. All transfers go through his office, and he revived a promotion board to do away with “the hook,” slang for getting plum assignments based on whom you know. “If a chief says, this is how we always do it, he’d come right back to you and say: Why? Defend it!” Mr. Stahl said.
At news conferences in Mr. Kelly’s earlier days, detectives and chiefs often spoke, but now it is almost exclusively him, conversing in his growling, clipped manner. Incoming rounds in Vietnam damaged his hearing and caused him to wear hearing aids. At news media appearances, he sometimes leans in, cups a hand behind his ear and says: “I’m a disabled war vet. Can you repeat that?”
Government agencies, academics and reporters, however, complain that the department is unwilling to provide insight into its workings — even statistics on lower-level crime or Mr. Kelly’s daily schedule. Several years ago, the commissioner ceased regular background briefings with the press corps embedded at Police Headquarters.
Commanders say they feel less empowered. One mentioned, for instance, how Mr. Kelly had taken over from high-ranking chiefs the right to allocate “take home” cars — unmarked vehicles that officers sometimes get to drive home as rewards for hard work.
New commissioners typically appoint new chiefs, but Mr. Kelly’s long tenure has produced a paralyzed structure. One Police Plaza has become a crucible of frustrated senior officials, where veterans say the only safe elevator conversation returns to lunch and retirement plans.
While he says Mr. Kelly has done a superb job, particularly in counterterrorism, Edward Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, faulted him for no longer offering a vision. “There is no message going to the bottom,” he said. “Everyone is afraid.” He added, “Among the rank-and-file, and even among the brass when I have talked to them, they are dying for a change.”
With long incumbencies, said Professor Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, “innovation is very difficult, and new blood may need new veins and organizational arteries.”
David W. Chen contributed reporting.
Direct Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/04/nyregion/raymond-w-kelly-nypd-commissioner-runs-into-turbulence.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha29