Former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is on a mission.
A cop’s cop, former Marine and public intellectual on the subjects of counterterrorism and proactive policing, Mr. Kelly is the kind of leader that makes you feel safe and shielded. You just know that he would personally intervene to save your life, even if — especially if — doing so would endanger his own.
In his new memoir, “Vigiliance,” Mr. Kelly details an extraordinary life protecting the American people. As the 37th New York City Police commissioner, Mr. Kelly oversaw the investigation into the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. And as the 41st commissioner, appointed just months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Kelly revamped the NYPD into a top-flight counterterrorism operation, working effectively with federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies. He also refined proactive community policing, including stop, question and frisk, which — until a highly politicized decision by a U.S. District judge stopped it two years ago — had helped to turn New York into the safest big city in the country.
Under the city’s leftist mayor Bill de Blasio, much of that hard-won success is being erased, resulting in increased gun violence, homelessness and murder. When I spoke with Mr. Kelly recently, I asked how it felt to see so many of his public safety achievements reversed.
“It doesn’t bother me personally,” he says. “It bothers me as a citizen of the city. I hate to see increased crime and violence, homicides, homeless on the streets. The disorder is growing. I think, at some point, we’ll have to go back to the policies that worked, like stop-and-frisk. We’ll just have to.”
Following the high-profile cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, relations between police and predominately minority communities have been strained, giving rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement and increased threats to police.
Is there a war on cops?
“Probably,” he says. “It’s not widespread. But there are people who want to attack cops. It spurred the assassination of our two officers in New York, [Rafael] Ramos and [Wenjian] Liu, the officer in Houston, other incidents. The anti-police rhetoric is disturbing. The police feel they’re under siege. The tone is set at the top. And among the rank and file, there is residual concern about de Blasio.”
When I recall Mr. de Blasio’s anti-police statements, Mr. Kelly replies sharply: “My problem with de Blasio goes back to 2013, when he ran against the NYPD and me personally. At the time, the NYPD was at 73 percent approval and I was at 75 percent. Leadership means more than following an ideological agenda. I don’t think the progressive movement fits well in a city like New York, where most people would rather you manage well than push an agenda.
“Stop and frisk is an important tool. The communities it helped most were minority communities, high-crime areas, where they appreciated our proactive approach to getting guns off the streets. Those communities are suffering the most in increased violence.”
When I turn to counterterrorism, his tone softens. “I lived literally across the street from the World Trade Center. It was my neighborhood, my friends, my local businesses. I remember talking to an engineer the night of the first bombing attack in 1993. He said, “These buildings could never come down.” That thought struck me as I watched them come down on 9/11.
“I knew we had to do something more,” he continues. “So we ramped up counterterrorism, brought in experts from all over the country and overseas, and our level of cooperation with the federal government was good. We had 120 NYPD working with the feds — an unprecedented number. But [President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper didn’t like “the optics” of it, so he withdrew.
“But on the [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg watch, we stopped 16 terror plots, including the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, out of hard work and dumb luck.”
When I ask if Mr. de Blasio has defanged that counterterrorism unit, Mr. Kelly says, “I don’t know. I do know that they eliminated the demographics unit, which we created to get granular information on where people are living in the city. We went in and talked to people. The Associated Press then did a story in which they objected to what we were doing, and de Blasio reduced the unit to five people.
“In facing the threats we are, we have a right to know where people are,” he states emphatically.
Did he ever believe the NYPD crossed the line? “No. We had a legal and constitutional basis for everything we did. Individuals who crossed lines were dealt with, but department policy was always clear, legal and appropriate. And effective,” he adds.
I ask Mr. Kelly if he would consider running for mayor.
“Right now, I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” he says, adding, “I have no plans to run.”
Many New Yorkers, desperate for a return to the good old days, see possibility in that answer. I don’t know if Mr. Kelly wants another round of public service, but New York, and the nation at large, needs a few good men willing to pull us back from the brink.
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