Save the NYPD So It Can Save the City

‘Without stop-and-search, Kelly estimates that he would need an extra 50,000 officers to police the city because people who don’t run the risk of being searched start carrying guns’

Dispatches Policing US Politics

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly: When asked if he’ll run for mayor, he draws a line across his neck and asks for a new line of questioning

“The last time the city felt this safe,” quips the witty New York journalist James Freeman, “the Dutch were raising cattle at the bottom of Manhattan.” It’s true; New York City has indeed seen a total transformation in the past quarter-century-you are seven times less likely to be murdered here today than you were in 1990-and much of it can be put down directly to the leadership of its popular 71-year-old Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly. The New York Police Department (NYPD) has a 70 per cent approval rating in the polls, which Kelly considers “not bad considering how many summonses we hand out to people every year”. So why on earth is he under attack?

First, the statistics: in 1990 there were 2,445 homicides in a city of 7.3 million people, but by 2012 these were down to 419 in a city of 8.4 million. Last year’s murder rate was the lowest since citywide statistics were first compiled half a century ago. New York’s prison population has dropped nearly 40 per cent over the past decade, whereas in the rest of the country it has risen. In 2002, when Kelly became commissioner for the second time, the NYPD numbered 35,000 policemen; now budget cuts have left him with 6,000 fewer but he still bucks every trend. Small wonder that Kelly gets standing ovations when he speaks at black churches in the Bronx and is begged to stand for Mayor when Michael Bloomberg’s term expires. Yet from one section of the community, he’s under near-constant assault.

The key to Kelly’s success has been “broken windows” policing: cracking down hard on the small misdemeanours — trespassing, vagrancy, vandalism — before their perpetrators turn to felonies. He’s also tough on the felonies. Study after study has shown how sending more people to jail for shorter periods has interrupted larger crime sprees. New York is today the safest large city in the United States, with a huge increase in the city’s intake of tourist dollars the most obvious benefit. (Kelly won’t make comparisons with violent, crime-ridden Chicago, but New Yorkers do all the time.)

Kelly certainly looks like a NYPD cop. He has a broken nose, a direct speaking style, and has served in every rank on the force since being a patrolman outside Macy’s department store 43 years ago. He’s proud of the way that his emphasis on community policing — getting his men out of the patrol cars and onto the beat — has particularly helped in the perpetual struggle between the NYPD and the street gangs. Called names like “J-Rip” and “Crewcut”, these are no longer huge gangs like LA’s famous “Bloods” and “Crips”, but instead constitute around 220 mini-gangs who regularly fight over territory and respect. “But they then boast about it on Facebook and Twitter,” reports Kelly, “using their neighbourhood slang which our juvenile division officers then decode.” Some gang members actually photograph themselves in front of the intended victims’ houses, and are then surprised when they get arrested shortly afterwards.

Gangs have doubled in size in recent years. “Usually it’s one housing project against another,” says Kelly, “but sometimes the tribalism gets as specific as gangs from the front of a housing project fighting against another made up of people living in the flats at the back.” Today, some 30 per cent of shootings in New York are gang-related. The NYPD conducts a deliberate policy of saturating gangland areas with police, making sure that the same cops patrol the same beat so that they get to know the individuals as well as the geography, which they find increases the chances of residents co-operating. “We use home visits,” says Kelly, “and then we arrest them.”

Central to the struggle against gang and street violence is the police’s tactic of stop-and-search, which Kelly himself calls “stop-question-search”. If someone seems to be scouting out whether to rob a car, or standing in the shadows in an alley around the corner from an ATM machine, or following people, NYPD officers will ask him “the nature of his business” before doing a “limited pat-down” if they’re not satisfied with the answers. Feeling a weapon during the pat-down permits the officers to conduct a full search. Without stop-and-search, Kelly estimates that he would need an extra 50,000 officers to police the city, because people who don’t run the risk of being stopped and searched, he points out, start carrying guns, and “doing the things that people do with guns”. Stop-and-search seems even more commonsensical when you consider that 57 per cent of those murdered in New York are shot and 21 per cent are stabbed.

It all sounds sensible, but right there is the reason for Kelly’s unpopularity, not with the people of New York, and especially not with the law-abiding residents of low-income neighbourhoods who massively support stop-and-search because it disarms the thugs who prey upon them. Kelly is unpopular with left-wing public advocates and elite law firms who sue the NYPD for its anti-trespass patrols and denounce stop-and-search as unconstitutional (which it isn’t). Civil liberties think-tanks and pressure groups such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Vera Institute of Justice, the JFA Institute, the Brennan Center for Justice and many others exercise an inordinate amount of influence in the Democratic primary race for New York’s next mayor, which will therefore go to the most left-wing electable candidate.

Presently that person is the Speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn, who has proposed that the NYPD should be saddled with an Inspector-General to “oversee” it. That would be on top of the two independent city agencies, five district attorneys and two federal attorneys who already oversee the force. Quinn hopes that by doing this, she will seem the most left-wing of the electable candidates for mayor, and attract the big money support from the rich, largely middle-class civil liberties groups necessary for her campaign financing.

The reason that these groups state they oppose stop-and-search is because they claim that it is used disproportionately against minorities, although Kelly replies that in fact blacks are “understopped significantly”, with only 53 per cent of stops involving African-Americans, compared to 70 per cent of New York’s crimes that involve them. Hispanics have more of a right to complain: they are involved in 32 per cent of stops and 26 per cent of the crimes. Yet the communities themselves support stop-and-search wholeheartedly, because 96 per cent of shooting victims and 90 per cent of murder victims in New York are black and Hispanic, against a New York population which is 33.3 per cent white, 28.6 per cent Hispanic, 23 per cent black and 12.7 per cent Asian. 

1n 1968, the Supreme Court, which was more liberal then than it is now, ruled stop-and-search constitutional. “It’s used by all police forces everywhere and always has been,” Kelly says of the policy. “We’re really being punished for having better record keeping. The City Council insists on us keeping a record of every time we ever frisk anyone.” He calls it “a life-saving device” and points out: “In the 11 years before the Bloomberg administration, there were 7,364 more murders in NYC than in the 11 years he’s been mayor. Most of those dead would have been young people of colour.” He adds that there are more officers of the NYPD today from minority racial backgrounds than from the majority, so most of the people whom the civil liberties groups accuse of racist profiling are from ethnic minorities themselves. In each of the last two graduating classes of 1,000 from the Police Academy, the graduates have been able to speak a total of 50 languages. Moreover, the police force is getting smarter: 42 per cent of entrants are now college graduates.

Another area where the incredibly well-financed and ultra-liberal civil liberties industry attacks Kelly is over his supposed “targeting” of Muslims in the NYPD’s so far incredibly successful anti-terrorist campaign since 9/11. The 1,000 officers that he has devoted to counter-terrorism have so far foiled no fewer than 16 lethal plots against various targets in the city, although several more are ongoing. Yet last year the Associated Press ran a series of Pulitzer-Prize-winning articles attacking the NYPD for supposedly unfairly monitoring New York’s Muslim community. 

“Contradicting all the mistakes they made was like trying to drink from a firehose,” Kelly jokes, and when asked what he has changed about the NYPD in the wake of the articles, he defiantly replies: “Nothing.” The NYPD stuck rigidly to the post-9/11 judicial consent decree regulations covering monitoring, and he says he has nothing to apologise for. He is caustic about the Obama administration’s conduct of the domestic War on Terror, saying: “The threat hasn’t lessened. It’s just that the administration has de-emphasised it, especially when it described Major Hassan killing 13 people at Fort Hood as a ‘workplace violence incident’.” 

The horror of the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15 shows how nothing can be taken for granted, that sometimes the bomber does get through, and that the price of security is eternal vigilance.

Kelly deeply appreciates the “steadfast” support he has received from Michael Bloomberg, who has publicly rejected Quinn’s Inspector-General idea, but he must be apprehensive about what will happen should Quinn, the front-runner, become mayor. 

Bloomberg’s vast personal wealth has meant that he has not been beholden to any interest groups for contributions to campaign finance, which is the opposite of the case with the pygmy politicians lining up to succeed him, including the shrilly ideological Christine Quinn.

So why doesn’t Kelly run for mayor himself? When asked — as he constantly is by New Yorkers who simply want to stay safe — he draws a line across his neck, asking for a new line of questioning. He sometimes says his wife of 49 years, Veronica — whom I can attest does a nifty turn on the dance floor — wants him to enjoy a well-earned retirement, rather than undergo the rigours of being Hizzoner. 

Small wonder that New Yorkers then, who love the feeling of safety that Kelly has given them, are apprehensive about a future in which a Quinn mayoralty, owing favours to her civil libertarian backers, makes the NYPD a whipping-boy for its politically correct obsessions.