PROSPECT HEIGHTS — New York City has come through some of its most turbulent times with Ray Kelly as its police commissioner.
He headed the New York Police Department under Mayor David Dinkins from 1992 to 1994 and again under Mayor Michael Bloomberg following the 9/11 attacks, from 2002 to 2013. Commissioner Kelly is the first person to have held the post for two non-consecutive terms.
Pat Ednie, who worked under Kelly as an NYPD detective for 14 years, said Kelly was held in high regard; whenever he or his colleagues were faced with a difficult situation, the first thing they would do was ask, “What would Ray Kelly do?”
The son of a milkman and a Macy’s coat-check girl, Kelly grew up on New York’s City’s Upper West Side. An Irish Catholic, Kelly attended St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in Manhattan.
He fondly recalled an idyllic childhood of kids playing stickball in the streets and football in Riverside Park. “That’s how it was being a Catholic kid in 1940s New York. They really were mostly carefree times,” he wrote in “Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City,” his bestselling 2015 autobiography.
After graduating with honors from Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, he went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Manhattan College, a law degree from St. John’s University, a master of laws from New York University School of Law, and a master of public administration from Harvard University.
He also served the nation as a Marine during the 1960s and rose to the rank of colonel. He is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.
After 50 years in public service, Kelly today is an advisor and consultant to several companies that are mostly involved in technology and security. He is also on the boards of the Archdiocese of New York and the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation. Kelly and his wife, Veronica, have two children, James and Greg.
While Kelly is not currently working in public service, he still has strong views about issues facing New York City and beyond, including his expectation of an increase in terrorist threats and his concerns about the people of Haiti.
Kelly said he expects Eric Adams, elected as mayor Nov. 2, will help restore a sense of sanity to New York City in the face of increasing crime and violence. “He’s saying all the right things, and that’s good,” the former commissioner said. “Hopefully, he’ll live up to those things when he officially takes office.”
Kelly observed that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll on the city. He thinks that it’s going to take years for New York to get back to any semblance of pre-Covid life, and a very important part of that is managing out-of-control, violent crime.
“You know, after the death of George Floyd, the NYPD stopped doing many of the things that helped make it so successful in the past, such as eliminating plainclothes cops and the Anti-Crime Unit, which was probably one of the most effective anti-crime measures that the city has ever had,” he explained. “The City Council also piled on a deluge of restrictive laws, rules, and regulations for cops, and [Mayor Bill de Blasio] defended this move. Either the police will be allowed to do their jobs, or the city will continue with increased violent crime.”
Although he does believe that the city can rebound, Kelly admitted he is concerned with the trend of residents leaving the city, or contemplating doing so, because of rising crime.
“I can tell you that people call me all the time and they are afraid,” he said. “They are afraid to go out on the street or go out at night. And, of course, all the horror stories that you hear about things that happened in the subway just compounds that fear. I think we are at a very critical point in the history of the city.”
Kelly called the controversial stop-and-frisk policy an important part of police work and is convinced that the city does not feel safer without it; he believes police should intervene if they witness suspicious behavior because it allows them to have more control over certain situations. Crime rates in the city dropped by about 20% when police were able to search individuals for weapons and illegal substances, he said. Critics of stop-and-frisk call it invasive to individual privacy and easy to abuse, with racial profiling of African Americans and Hispanics being a major concern.
“Well, it’s important to note it’s ‘stop, question, and sometimes frisk,’ Kelly said in defense of the now-discontinued NYPD practice. “It is a totally legal tool in a police officer’s toolbox throughout America. It’s validated by a Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. It is in the statutes in New York Criminal Procedure Law, and it’s the law in virtually every state in the country. So it is a legitimate function that has been basically totally backed away from. And that’s unfortunate because it is a legitimate crime-fighting tool.”
Kelly is also at odds with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s release of 191 Rikers Island inmates who had been convicted for parole violations — part of efforts to reduce the state’s burgeoning prison population. Hochul also promised that an additional 200 convicted inmates would be released to different state facilities to finish the rest of their sentences. Kelly questioned that move, too.
He believes it’s important to look at the whole picture of the troubled, much maligned site.
“Rikers Island is an ideal location for a detention facility, and it can be renovated. In essence, you can build a brand new facility with up-to-date technology in place right there at the same location. The whole notion of putting four separate jails in the city will cause many fights now and forever,” Kelly said about de Blasio’s plan. “And I think it just makes sense to stay there and not to stir up a hornet’s nest.”
On the international front, Kelly expressed concern about what is taking place in Haiti.
Kelly received a commendation from President Clinton for his efforts in establishing an interim police force in Haiti; a reformed Haitian police department helped to end human rights abuses in the country in the mid 90s.
He recalled serving in Haiti for six months, saying “I really love the Haitian people.” Kelly added, “They are hard-working and industrialists, but they just can’t seem to catch a break. Life is so difficult in Haiti. When you see people walking miles to get water, and waiting in long lines for water, it’s heartbreaking. We actually saw people eating dirt. You just can’t believe how poor some of the people are.”
He went on to comment that one of the major problems in the impoverished Caribbean nation is the inability for industry to really flourish there because the technological revolution has passed them by.
Regarding the recent crisis involving Haitian migrants crossing the border from Mexico into Del Rio, Texas, Kelly said he believes that it is unfair for anyone to jump ahead on the immigration application line.
“There is a process for becoming a U.S. citizen,” he said, “and I think it’s unfair to all those other people who are in the queue, who are trying to come here, to just bully your way into the United States. And, yes, I feel for them,” he added, “but, you know, where does it end? How many people have said, ‘If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country’?”