NYPD chief expands counterterror role
If he wants, he can produce a military-style aerial map of lower Manhattan, including Wall Street and ground zero. But on this weekday, he zooms in on a homeless man passed out in a bus stop on the Upper West Side, then emails a photo to the neighborhood’s precinct house — prodding commanders there to get the man shelter.
The scene put two of the 69-year-old commissioner’s trademarks on display: an obsessive attention to detail and an insatiable appetite for the latest technology. He’s also known for an impervious attitude toward questions about the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism tactics, which have raised concerns about civil rights and unchecked power.
But Kelly believes his record speaks for itself. Nine years after taking over a department stunned by the events of Sept. 11, there have been no more successful attacks. And New Yorkers, he said, can thank the NYPD.
“We’ve done so many things,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in early August. “There’s no guarantees. We live in an unsafe world, but relatively speaking, New York is a very safe place, and it’s palpable.”
His unwavering support from a three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and his unusual longevity add to his influence.
If he finishes out Bloomberg’s third term in 2013 as expected, Kelly will have served longer than any other police commissioner, more than 11 years total. Right now, only one of 40 previous police commissioners has served longer in the post, created by Gov. Theodore Roosevelt in 1900.
Under Kelly’s leadership, New York has seen its homicide rate plummet. In 2009, the city had only 471 killings, the lowest since reliable record-keeping began in 1963, and a stark comparison from a record-high 2,245 in 1990.
But it’s his approach to terrorism that has gotten him the most attention. And, said police historian Thomas Reppetto, his track record has set new standards for policing.
“Before 9/11, police weren’t judged on their counterterrorism abilities,” he said. “Kelly has created a blueprint for how a police department should respond to counterterrorism. And that’s an original.”
Kelly’s aggressive approach to counterterrorism has been largely lauded. President Barack Obama visited headquarters after the department handled a car bomb that nearly went off in Times Square in May 2010, thanking Kelly for his work defending the city.
The New York native began his law enforcement career with the NYPD in 1966 after a tour in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. Over the next four decades, he held every rank in the department.
He also graduated from Manhattan College, earned law degrees from St. John’s and New York universities and a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
He served as police commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins from 1992 to 1994 and later became a Treasury Department official in charge of the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the agency that used to be known as the U.S. Customs Service.
His last job before his current NYPD stint was as a security manager for the now-defunct Bear Stearns Companies. In 2006, he was awarded France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honor, for creating a liaison between the NYPD and French authorities.
After Bloomberg asked him to return to the NYPD shortly after Sept. 11, Kelly assembled an inner circle of advisers. Among them were a former CIA official who’s still with the department and a retired Marine general.
“I believe that we had to bring in different skill sets, people who had different experiences than you would normally get in the police department,” Kelly said.
The team, he recalled, quickly reached a conclusion that would have far-reaching implications: “We needed to do more to protect the city than simply rely on the federal government.”
On a piece of butcher paper, Kelly roughed out the first ideas to overhaul the department’s Intelligence Division, give it the tools and people to analyze and detect overseas and homegrown threats, as well as the authority to gather evidence to thwart them.
A brand-new counterterrorism unit would also provide protection on streets, in the subways, even the waterways. Both would report directly to him.
Today, about 1,000 of the city’s roughly 35,000 officers are assigned each day to counterterrorism operations. The commissioner also pioneered a program to send officers overseas to report on how other cities deal with terrorism.
And through federal grants and city funding, Kelly has spent tens of millions of dollars on technology to outfit the department with the latest tools — from portable radiation detectors to the network of hundreds of cameras that can track suspicious activity.
The department also has used informants and undercover officers of Arab and Muslim descent to try to detect homegrown terror threats. That effort thwarted a plot to blow up a subway station in 2004 and resulted in the arrests of two men last year on charges they sought to join a Somali terror group.
Critics have likened the program to domestic spying and say it threatens civil rights.
Kelly has “escaped serious scrutiny for the massive erosions of civil liberties that have been brought by the NYPD under his leadership,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Lieberman cited other examples like the “stop-and-frisk” searches of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers — mostly black and Hispanic men — who have not been charged with a crime, the infusion of police into the school system and the widespread video surveillance.
An AP investigation published last month revealed new details about the NYPD’s aggressive domestic intelligence operations and its unusual relationship with the CIA. Kelly said the day after publication of the AP report that a CIA officer works in police headquarters in an advisory role.
Federal authorities have grumbled that the NYPD too often treads on their turf. The tension was most recently exposed when the FBI declined to pursue a terror investigation with the department that resulted in two arrests.
Kelly is unapologetic about testing the limits of his department’s authority in a post-9/11 world. And he also insists that overall, the partnership with the FBI and other agencies remains strong.
“There’s probably always been and probably always will be a little resentment someplace, because people see intelligence ... as within the bailiwick of the federal government,” he said. “Obviously we don’t see it that way.”
The commissioner argues that two recent cases — the car bomb last year and the thwarted plot in 2009 to bomb the subway — along with several other plots since the attack, prove that New York is still the nation’s top target.
“We don’t see the threat as diminishing any time soon,” he said.
Peter Vallone, a city councilman who leads the public safety committee, has been so impressed by Kelly that his endorsement of Bloomberg for a third term hinged on whether the commissioner would finish out his tenure along with the mayor.
“I’ve felt that New York City needs him as police commissioner,” he said.
Kelly has consistently topped polls asking voters who they want for the next mayor. Consistent, too, are his denials he has any interest. He said he hasn’t thought about what he’s doing next.
“I have way too much to do,” he said, “before I start thinking about a legacy.”