On the Streets

Murder Most Rare: An Exclusive Interview with NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly

New York’s homicide rate is at a record low. So why are the cops being treated as villains? Christopher Dickey talks to police chief Ray Kelly.

Here's a little story you may have missed. From 5:40 the evening of October 6 to about 10:15 the night of October 14, not a single homicide was registered in New York City. This is the third time in a year that a week or more has passed without a murder in a metropolis that was known in the 1990s as one of the great killing fields of America.

Yet the single person most responsible for the safety of 8.4 million New Yorkers and millions more visitors, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, finds his force and himself cast as villains by local politicians. As the city chooses its new mayor, liberal posturing has trumped common sense in Gotham almost as perversely as Tea Party tomfoolery has defeated sweet reason in Congress.

Kelly, on his way out in New York, ought to be a leading candidate to head the federal Department of Homeland Security. But in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, he just joked about that. "I am sitting by the phone," he said, and laughed.

Even Kelly’s most ardent supporters in Washington concede privately that the negative press focused on Kelly has made his appointment highly unlikely. His cops are accused of stopping and questioning and sometimes frisking young men who are black or Hispanic in neighborhoods where most of the population—and most of the victims of crime—are black and Hispanic. The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has defended the tactic without reservation. Kelly has reined it in, but argues that the practice of questioning people and, if there are grounds for further suspicion, patting them down is “basic to police work.”

The issue came up with a vengeance in a debate Tuesday night between liberal Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and Republican Joseph Lhota.

Citing one federal judge’s ruling that “stop and frisk” as practiced was unconstitutional, De Blasio derided Lhota for daring to say he’d keep Kelly as police commissioner, “even though Ray Kelly has been the architect of the overuse of ‘stop and frisk’ that has had such a negative effect on the relationship between police and community and so many communities of color."

"You're absolutely right I'll keep Ray Kelly if he wants to stay as police commissioner,” said Lhota. “Ray hasn't decided whether he's going to stay or not, but I'll be honest with you. I will not bash the man who has lowered crime to levels that we’ve never seen in this city before. We should be thanking him, not bashing him," said Lhota.

But De Blasio is leading in the polls by more than 40 points with elections only three weeks away.

So Kelly soldiers on. The men and women of the NYPD do, too, and for the moment the death toll on the streets just keeps going down: as of Sunday there had been 256 murders in 2013, as opposed to 346 by this time last year. In 1990 well over 1,500 people had died by October, and by the end of the year the urban carnage had taken 2,245 lives.

“People have gotten used to low crime levels, and they just take it as a given,” Kelly told me. “They don’t remember the bad old days.”

Several factors have come into play to lower the homicide rate. The additional taxes that increased funding for the police under Mayor David Dinkins in 1993 (when Kelly first served as commissioner) put more boots on the ground. The so-called "zero tolerance" policy subsequently begun under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his first police commissioner, Bill Bratton, had a dramatic impact. The burnout of the crack epidemic was important. But nobody expected in 2002, when Bloomberg took office and appointed Kelly commissioner, that the murder rate could be pushed to the phenomenally low levels of today.

The key in the last year has been the crackdown on the gangs and crews that were responsible, in 2011, for almost 30 percent of the city’s murders. Over the last 12 months the NYPD has doubled the size of its Gang Division under Deputy Chief Theresa Shortell from 150 to 300 detectives and it has launched an aggressive campaign tracking and arresting suspects.

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“Operation Crew Cut,” as it’s called, “is a comprehensive approach to the problem of low level gangs engaged in violent acts,” says Kelly. They are not so much “entrepreneurial” as “territorial,” he said, meaning they’re less involved in organized crime and drug trafficking than infamous gangs like the Bloods and the Crips. They tend to focus instead on protecting their turf in various neighborhoods and housing projects. They take vengeance on members of other crews, and in some parts of the city vendettas spread from block to block. Kids with guns fire erratically toward their rivals, and innocent bystanders get killed.

The gang members use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to taunt their enemies and vaunt their own attacks, and the cops are following them closely. “We have focused on the social media input,” says Kelly. “We watch them bragging, making threats, claiming responsibility.”

In April, I accompanied Gang Division teams as they took down three crews in East Harlem, targeting 63 people in all. A member of the crew Air It Out (AIO) allegedly had shot and killed a member of the Tru Money Gang (TMG) back in 2009, setting off a series of retaliations, including two more murders and multiple shootings, and a lot of “shots-fired jobs,” as Deputy Chief Shortell put it, when people squeezed off a few random rounds that, luckily, hit no one.

It’s a continuous struggle for the cops. In those precincts where crews are a major problem, special police units have been set up, each with a dozen uniformed officers. There are police assigned to work with current and potential gang members who may not have crossed the line into crime as yet. And there are lawyers on hand whenever there are major busts to be made.

All this is in addition to “Operation Impact,” the aggressive program that floods high crime areas with rookie cops who’ve been trained to go by the book, but who definitely get in the face of gang members.

When I was talking with Kelly on Tuesday, I noted that the latest reduction in the homicide rate had come at a time when stop and frisk tactics were supposed to have been curtailed.

“I don’t think the criminal element necessarily knows that,” said the commissioner. He wasn’t laughing.