15 Aug 2015

An Interview with Ray Kelly, former NYPD Commissioner at the Manhattan Institute

Recently, Ray Kelly, former police commissioner for New York City under Mayors Dinkins and Bloomberg, was interviewed by the Manhattan Institute about his new book that chronicles his time in New York. Staff from the Japan Local Government Center was able to go and listen to his story. He has had a 40 year career with the New York Police Department (NYPD); from patrolman all the way up to commissioner. He explained his background was quite humble: Two-parent household, four siblings, Irish-American, catholic school.

Discussing the current state of affairs in New York City, he made it clear that demographics are really important. People think that one can go on auto-pilot but that is not the case. Change has happened in the city. There has been a 40 per cent turnover in population. Many today do not know what it was like in the 1970s, 80s and even 90s. At that time, New York represented 10 per cent of all murders in the nation.

What he faced in the early 1990s was a lack of information. That was his first goal to strengthen the police department. So, he set up a ‘real time crime center’. Information went out to investigators on the street every moment of every day (what we now call 24/7). He realised that a quicker arrest was extremely important for both the morale of the force and the residents, not to mention the effect it had on would-be criminals. With the tremendous gain in information, it was natural to saturate high crime areas with a police presence. That led to what became known as a ‘stop, question and frisk’ practice in these high crime areas. Incidentally, this was a long-standing practice, recognised by the Anglo-American concept of common law. He put the practice into context. Of the 40,000 stops last year, there are about 19,000 officers in the NYPD who could be involved in the practice. That amounted to 3.6 million hours per day, or 25 million patrol hours per week. In a city of 8 million, with over 7000 ‘911’ calls that are event driven, it becomes clear that only one stop for every 600 patrol hours is a minor part of the City’s police work. The objective was always to saturate high crime areas as a major deterrent.

After 11th September 2001, he turned his attention to protecting New York City from any future terrorist attack. As he put it, he was “put in to remind people that these events are a serious attempt to destroy New York City”. He looked first to the federal government but realised very quickly that New York would have to rely on itself. So he assembled a superb team of intelligence officers, culled from the CIA, FBI and others. What he saw was people scared to come to New York – Times Square was in his words ‘emptying out’. There are over 100 countries represented in New York. His solution again was to build up an enviable amount of information. Officers were assigned overseas, working with the police in various other countries. As a result he could rely on almost instantaneous information about any event around the world. The Mumbai terrorist attack led to a 75-page report on his desk within two weeks.

In the question and answer period, he discussed the current situation concerning police-citizen relations generally around the country. In the end, he stated that it will always come down to leadership. He said he learnt it in the Marine Corps. It is transferable but one has to have a basic set of skills and information before one can exercise leadership. What astonished him was the lack of awareness of terrorism in most cities across the nation. Also, since most cities are uniquely diverse, this diversity should be used to develop the information necessary to fight terrorism. All in all, it was a most enlightening conversation.