There’d been a crucial break in one of Manhattan’s most infamous unsolved murders. One after another, reports from NYPD detectives popped up on the New York City police commissioner’s BlackBerry. Ray Kelly was on a quick work trip to London, and here, by the Thames in the predawn hours of May 24, the case of a little boy who had disappeared 33 years earlier suddenly loomed large on his handheld screen. It was a grim flashback to times when New York was a nearly bankrupt metropolis with streets that reeked of refuse and echoed with gunfire. As the sun rose in London, the emails kept coming.
Kelly, indefatigable even at 70, had spent the previous 48 hours meeting with British police and intelligence officials, studying security and antiterrorism preparations for the upcoming London Olympics. There had been discussions about underwear bombs undetectable by magnetic scanners and Scotland Yard had showed off its collection of infernal devices cobbled together by terrorists: explosives disguised as basketball shoes and computer-printer cartridges. It was the stuff of 21st-century nightmares.
Since he took over as police commissioner in the aftermath of 9/11, Kelly’s most critical mission has been to thwart all terrorist threats against the city, and he’s aimed to do that, in some cases, even before a plot is entirely clear to the plotters themselves.
Kelly’s “intelligence-led” and “pro-active” policing has observed the spirit of the law but pushed its limits, provoking outrage from civil libertarians. He has been idolized by the New York tabloids for keeping the city safe, and excoriated by The New York Times for abusing his authority. A federal court recently opened the way for a class-action suit to curtail the cops’ hundreds of thousands of “stop and frisk” encounters with young men, mostly blacks and Hispanics. “We are doing everything we reasonably can under the law to protect the city,” says Kelly, emphasizing “under the law.” Critics say the policy drives a wedge between police and the community; the police claim it keeps guns off the streets in a city where 96 percent of shooting victims are black or Hispanic. By the cops’ count, their searches turn up 8,000 knives and other weapons every year, including about 600 to 700 handguns. (They note that since 2006, a majority of the police force has been made up of minorities.)
Kelly’s assertive style of policing has also created a bureaucratic battle with agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who believe Kelly’s intelligence-gathering operatives are stepping on bureau turf.
Ray Kelly discusses the NYPD’s anti-terror unit.
The record, however, is hard to argue with: at least 14 full-blown terrorist attacks have been prevented or failed on Kelly’s watch. Beyond terrorism, New Yorkers are safer today than anyone might have thought possible 20 years ago. The homicide rate—the most reliable indicator of conventional violent crime—is a small fraction of what it was in 1990, when 2,245 people were killed in New York City. The homicide rate is also substantially lower now than it was when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly took over from Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” regime in 2002. New York’s homicide rate last year was 6.1 per 100,000 inhabitants. Philadelphia, highly praised by The New York Times for giving up its stop-and-frisk policy, had a rate more than three times higher, at 20.7 per 100,000.
The pugnacious police commissioner, who looks bulldog-tough even in bespoke suits, has Bloomberg’s strong backing, and refuses to bend to others’ opinions if he thinks they’ll compromise his goals. Whether his cops are infiltrating suspected terrorist groups (many, but not all of them, Muslim) or questioning and patting down people on the street, he makes no apologies. Not surprisingly, Kelly’s critics often call him arrogant—a charge that, when I put it to him, made him stiffen a little.
“I don’t think I’ve become arrogant,” he said as we talked in the 14th-floor conference room known as the Executive Command Center at One Police Plaza. In the dimly lit room, the walls were covered with flat-screen displays showing statistics, graphs, street-surveillance images, and live feeds from the cable networks. “I’m pretty much the same person,” said Kelly. “I think the world has changed. I think I’m pretty consistent. Because you stick to what you believe does not make you arrogant.”
Displaying little interest in money, Kelly lives with his wife, Veronica, in a comfortable but modest two-bedroom apartment in Battery Park. His considerable energy is focused on performing what he sees as his duty, whether fending off terrorists or solving the disappearance of a child. “It’s a full-time total-immersion job,” he says.
Ray Kelly was police commissioner once before, in the early 1990s, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center by detonating a large bomb in the underground garage, killing six people and injuring a thousand. Back then Kelly still believed the feds could keep his city safe. But the 9/11 attacks changed his mind: the NYPD would have to become a counterterror force in its own right.
I first got to know Kelly during his time away from the NYPD, when he ran U.S. Customs and then worked at Bear Stearns—and it was obvious he missed policing. Once, while we were driving through Harlem, he pointed out the street corners he used to stake out during drug busts; the rooftops he had run across chasing bad guys. After Kelly went back to policing, we stayed in touch and I watched how his counterterror operations developed. Kelly’s approach, the subject of my 2009 book Securing the City, relied heavily on human intelligence, not only to gather information but to disrupt plots by infiltrating groups with informers and undercover police. By the middle of the decade, fellow police chiefs were talking about the NYPD approach to counterterrorism as “the gold standard.”
Paradoxically, because the approach is so effective, it makes people feel much safer and spurs the belief that aggressive policing is no longer necessary. Like the tattered American flags once draped from windows or flying from car antennas, memories of the horror that settled on New York after 9/11 have faded. Just before the anniversary of the atrocity last year, the Associated Press launched a lengthy series of stories that took a critical look at Kelly’s policing, detailing the surveillance and undercover work in Muslim communities, the cozy relationship with the CIA, and the troubled NYPD–FBI relations. The series won a Pulitzer Prize—and NYPD supporters have been rebutting its details ever since. What Kelly resents in particular is the implication, never proven in print, that he’d gone beyond the very carefully lawyered legal constraints on police activities. And, as he sees it: “These questions would not surface—and did not surface—in 2002.”
Kelly won’t let his guard down. “We see no reason to think the threat to this city has diminished,” Kelly said earlier this year. “You don’t want people to be overly concerned, but you want people to know that we are taking care of business.”
Consistently high approval ratings for Kelly and his department are likely one reason GOP power brokers are encouraging him to run for mayor next year when Bloomberg steps down after three terms. When I ask him about it, Kelly simply says he likes his current job and has “no plans to run for elective office”—which is not quite the denial it might sound like.
Many Kelly confidantes suspected that the waves of bad publicity pouring down on the department over the past year were partly the work of potential rivals, or their supporters, who wanted to warn him off a run at the mayor’s office. But the mudslinging took a particularly ugly turn when Kelly’s son Greg, a popular host on the local Fox News affiliate morning show, was charged with rape. A paralegal claimed he’d gotten her too drunk to resist when they had sex in her office. She filed the charge months later, after the older man she’d been dating found out about the encounter. He, in his turn, had confronted Kelly at a public event, claiming Greg had ruined the woman’s life. After a highly publicized two-week investigation, the Manhattan district attorney’s office decided that text messages from the woman and other available evidence showed there were no grounds for the charges, and dropped the case. But friends of the commissioner (who declined to comment on the specifics of the case when we talked), say he was left wondering if the incident was an attempt to target him through his family. New York may be a much safer city than it once was, but it remains a very tough one.
The most problematic, and potentially dangerous, of Kelly’s internecine battles is not with the press or the politicians, but with the feds: a rivalry that affects national policy on counterterrorism and entangles officials in Washington from Langley to Capitol Hill and the White House.
With 34,500 sworn officers of the law and a $4.4 billion budget, the NYPD has a size and coherence no other local police force in America—and few in the world—can come close to matching. Indeed, the FBI, with its national and global responsibilities, counts only about 14,000 agents.
When Kelly took the job of commissioner in 2002, one of his first acts was to recruit David Cohen, a 35-year veteran of the CIA to run—and essentially reinvent—the department’s intelligence division. Cohen, who headed the agency’s clandestine services in the mid-1990s, quickly set up shop in the five boroughs and beyond, even stationing detectives in strategic foreign capitals. But Cohen’s sometimes bitter territorial battles with the FBI had a long history, and mid-level FBI agents, usually on condition that they remain anonymous as “law-enforcement sources,” don’t mince their words when talking about Cohen’s part of Kelly’s operation. “They do a lot of sneaky bulls--t,” says one veteran of many run-ins with the NYPD intelligence division’s force of some 500 detectives. Cohen believes “the FBI’s assumption is that if you are not under their control you are out of control,” says one source who knows his thinking. “Any organization that has chutzpah, power, and thrust to challenge [the FBI] in areas where they feel they should have monopoly power, they are going to do battle with. Not to do it better but just to keep you out.”
Kelly’s support for his intelligence chief is unequivocal: “David Cohen is without a doubt one of the best—if not the best—public servant I’ve ever encountered,” he says. And for the record, Kelly and FBI Director Robert Mueller—both former Marines, both veterans of Vietnam—say they have good rapport. Mueller says any reported frictions are just “bumps in the road.” Kelly, for his part, says “I would characterize it as a strong, affable relationship. We have to work closely with the FBI. We need to work with them. We want to work with them.”
Such pronouncements notwithstanding, history suggests the infighting could have dangerous consequences.
In September 2009, the FBI was tracking a 24-year-old Afghan immigrant named Najibullah Zazi as he drove toward New York with what agents knew to be a highly explosive mix of acetone and peroxide in the trunk of his rented red Chevrolet Impala. Along with two friends, Zazi planned to stage suicide attacks in the subway, much like those that, four years earlier, had killed 52 people and injured 700 in the London Underground.
At first, the intelligence and surveillance operation was a model of interagency cooperation. The National Security Agency discovered the plot as the conspirators trained in Pakistan; the FBI followed their activities closely when the would-be terrorists got back to the United States; the NYPD, meanwhile, was kept informed in considerable detail. But at the George Washington Bridge leading into New York City, when the FBI decided to stop Zazi on the New Jersey side using Port Authority police rather than on the New York side using the NYPD, the cooperation broke down. “It was done to screw us,” claims one New York cop familiar with the case.
Though Zazi later testified that “it looked like they were just waiting for me there,” the FBI had wanted the stop to seem random by having a sniffer dog “discover” the bomb. Unfortunately, the dog didn’t sniff anything. The Port Authority cops, with no warrant, had no excuse to open the trunk where the explosives were hidden, and allowed Zazi to go on his way. “It was a f--kup,” says a senior law-enforcement official who worked on the case.
That night, tipped off by the clumsy incident on the bridge, Zazi and his friends destroyed the evidence. The bomb-making chemicals got flushed down a toilet, and Zazi booked a flight back to Colorado. A few days later, as the FBI struggled to make a case for his arrest, “law-enforcement sources” leaked a story to The New York Times claiming it was the NYPD that had fumbled the case by questioning an imam about Zazi who then tipped him off—the day after the bridge incident. That just added insult to what could have been a serious injury to New York. As one law-enforcement source points out: the feds allowed a would-be terrorist into the heart of the city, with what they knew to be live explosives.
Since then, relations between the NYPD and the FBI have only gotten worse. In April, word leaked out of Washington that Saudi and Western intelligence agencies had infiltrated the ranks of a deadly al Qaeda spinoff in Yemen and obtained the latest iteration of an “underwear” bomb that could slip by airport security in many parts of the world.
When the news broke, the NYPD hadn’t been told anything about the bomb. “We see this story surface—and it’s leaked— then it’s confirmed,” says Kelly, “and we received no information.” Kelly’s particular concern was that such a bomb, evading the conventional magnetic scanners in hotels and other public venues, could be used for high-profile assassination attempts in New York, say, during the U.N. General Assembly. Frustrated, Kelly vented to the Daily News: “That’s the type of information, quite frankly, that we need, deserve,” he said. New York senator Charles Schumer then raised the issue with Mueller at a public hearing. Finally, a week after the story broke, the NYPD got its briefing. “The important thing,” says Kelly, “is to do what we have to do to protect the city now, today, and tomorrow.”
To understand Ray Kelly one has to understand the New York City where he grew up (his father a milkman, his mother an employee at Macy’s) and the history of the enormous, powerful, very particular police force, the NYPD, where he made his career.
In those bad old days, the nearly bankrupt city had laid off cops by the thousands. Chaos, or the threat of it, crept into every neighborhood. A blackout in the summer of 1977 seemed to augur Armageddon as looting and arson swept the five boroughs. The unrelenting sleaze and violence spawned Hollywood tales of horror. Gritty films like Mean Streets and Fort Apache, The Bronx, came out year after year. (I once asked Kelly who should play him in a movie. He didn’t hesitate a second. “Harvey Keitel,” he said.)
Murders were rampant and the cops barely accountable. The mostly white police often stopped on the subway trains late at night and “tossed,” or frisked, every black man on board. Only rarely did they write up reports. In 1979, there were more than 1,800 homicides—and the numbers were climbing.
It was in that New York that a 6-year-old boy named Etan Patz disappeared on his way to catch a schoolbus just down the street from his family’s Soho loft. He became the first of many missing children to appear on milk cartons across the nation, his beautiful, guileless face mobilizing a huge investigation. But while the case was never closed, neither was it solved.
Kelly, a police lieutenant in 1979, was already a rising star, a straight-arrow vet known for his smarts, his ambition, and his ability to maneuver upward through departmental disarray. “It always seemed like we didn’t have enough cops to do anything,” he remembers. One night, he and a clerk were the only ones on duty at a station on West 20th Street, when word came in of an assault and robbery. Kelly ran to the scene, where a man had driven the rod of an umbrella through a woman’s face and was now rooting through her purse. “There was blood everywhere,” Kelly said. He grabbed the man and cuffed him. An ambulance came for the woman. But Kelly was left waiting, and waiting, for a distant radio car to come pick up the perp. He felt alone in a sea of crime.
Kelly had no part in the Patz investigation but went to the site of this high-profile case after the boy’s disappearance to check it out for himself: “You know, look at the area,” he says. “Get a feel for it.” The smell of garbage hung ripe and heavy in the summer streets, an almost invasive fog of decay in what seemed a dying city. Soho might be chic today, but back then it was “seedy,” Kelly remembers. “It was”—he looks for the word—“funky.”
The Patz disappearance made headlines again this year when Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance followed up on a 2010 promise to Etan’s father that he’d reexamine all the evidence. For years, the prime suspect had been a convicted child molester named José Ramos, who’d dated Etan’s babysitter. But in April, with much fanfare, Vance shifted the focus to a handyman who’d lived in the neighborhood. The FBI and NYPD went to work digging up the cement floor poured in one nearby building soon after Etan’s disappearance. No sign of Etan’s body—no evidence of any kind—turned up in the excavation. But the publicity around the dig shook loose a new lead.
“We got the tip on May 8,” Kelly told me. A man had called the NYPD’s bureau of missing persons and said his brother-in-law, Pedro Hernandez, had in the past confessed to family and friends that in 1979, when he worked in Soho as a stock boy at a convenience store, he’d killed a little boy. The store was right by the bus stop where Etan would have waited for a ride to school.
Over two weeks in May, NYPD detectives followed up on the lead, talking to Hernandez’s siblings, among others. “So it comes time,” says Kelly. The NYPD cops go to see Hernandez in New Jersey, says Kelly. “I was waiting for you,” he tells the detectives. And Kelly’s BlackBerry starts to light up in the middle of the London night.
After the cops took their suspect to a local prosecutor’s office in New Jersey, “he starts to give it up,” Kelly tells me a few days later. The detectives record three and a half hours of videotaped confession. But “no motive comes out,” says Kelly.
At the time of Etan’s disappearance, Hernandez was 18 and reportedly just beginning to show signs of the paranoid schizophrenia for which he’d later be medicated. In statements to police, he said he lured the child into the basement of the store with the promise of a soda. Once down the stairs, Hernandez says he choked Etan “from behind,” Kelly tells me as we sit in the dim light of the Executive Command Center, going over the case. “He takes the body and he puts it in a bag,” Kelly says. Then Hernandez says he put the little bundled-up corpse “with the garbage” down the street. But where precisely?
In those first hours after the confession, the NYPD detectives took Hernandez back to the scene of Patz’s disappearance. But the convenience store is now a pricey optician on the same block with fashion labels such as Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti’s Philosophy. “He doesn’t remember exactly what street he went down,” Kelly says. And more than three decades after the fact the chances of retrieving a body, or any physical evidence, are extremely remote.
When I bring up charges by critics that Kelly announced the arrest too soon, his face twists in a one-sided smile. By the time Kelly was headed for Heathrow, Hernandez was being held at One Police Plaza. “He is here. He is in the building. The issue is what do you do with him?” says Kelly. “Do we have probable cause to make an arrest here? You can’t let this guy walk out the door who just confessed to murder, particularly when you have the statements of other people”—family members, a religious counselor—“in some form of corroboration. Plus, he is obviously a suicide threat. If we let him go, it is very possible he would kill himself. So, I did speak to Vance, and told him what we were going to do. He was in agreement. And we effected the arrest.”
The investigation goes on, the BlackBerry continues to light up.
On the way out of Kelly’s offices, I stopped to look around the waiting room. It’s like a little museum dedicated to one of Kelly’s predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt, who served as commissioner in the 1890s before he went on to be a Rough Rider and the president of the United States.
Kelly loves to cite lines from Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech: “It is not the critic who counts,” said T.R. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly. His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
As Kelly once told my colleague, veteran city reporter Michael Daly, that quotation inspires him. “It’s something that motivates you to keep trying, keep fighting, keep going forward.”