Taming Haiti's Lawless Streets

New York City's top cop visited Haiti to help train its police just five days before the quake hit. Lloyd Grove talks to Ray Kelly about the nation's security—and his dinner companions killed in the disaster.

Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

Just before the earthquake flattened Port-au-Prince and buried hundreds of thousands of Haitians, the United States ambassador hosted a dinner in honor of New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Kelly—a scrappy ex-Marine with a Dick Tracy jaw-line, who, at 68, still looks like he could do some damage—was renewing his ties to the hemisphere"s poorest country. Back in the mid-1990s during the Clinton administration, he lived there for six months as director of an international monitoring team whose task was to help the Haitian government build a professional police force and curtail human-rights abuses. He has been back many times since.

"Several people at that dinner were killed," Kelly said. "I consider myself lucky, and the people who came with me were lucky."

Now Kelly had returned at the request of Haitian President René Préval, an old friend, to scope out the training needs of the local cops and to reassess strategies to stop the proliferation of kidnapping, a chronic problem. At Ambassador Kenneth Merten's residence, he was socializing with Tunisian Diplomat Hedi Annabi, head of the United Nations mission in Port-au-Prince, and a few of Annabi's staff.

Five days later on Jan. 12, Annabi and more than 100 UN employees died under the rubble. Kelly, who"d returned to New York by then, got the grim news around 8 p.m.

Kent Sepkowitz: What Are All These Doctors Doing in Haiti? "I had met him in New York, and I had dinner with him at the ambassador's residence—we were talking about some important issues in Haiti, and it was very animated," Kelly tells me. "Several people at that dinner were killed. I consider myself lucky, and the people who came with me were lucky."

We're sitting at the head of a very long table in the commissioner's austere beige conference room at 1 Police Plaza. The only flash of color is a wall of flat-screen televisions, one of them permanently tuned to Al Jazeera. Kelly is nursing a cold and speaks in a low rasp.

"Haiti was a country with many, many problems before the earthquake, and of course this has compounded the problems tremendously," he tells me. "It's going to take many, many years to bring it back to where it was. But that's not the level to shoot for—it makes no sense to bring Haiti back to where it was. It only makes sense to go way beyond that—and that's going to take the international community. It's going to take primarily the United States."

One problem is the power grid. "Fifteen years ago when I was there, they had big power deficiencies in Port-au-Prince—sectors being turned off every night in the city," Kelly says. "That really has a significant impact on manufacturing businesses, that sort of thing. And Haiti had no building codes to speak of. They were building at night, and when I talked to people about it on this last trip, they said they were afraid that government people would be shaking them down if they built during the day."

Then there are the lethal mudslides. "Land erosion is a huge problem, because they've cut down the trees for charcoal, and one of the major effects is that you have lots of mudslides when it rains. Houses are blown away, and we saw the effects during a hurricane [on an earlier visit]. The people working for us dug out 50 bodies in that hurricane. We did a fly-over and there was just a bed sticking out where a village had been."

The one bright spot, Kelly contends, is that reports of mayhem in the streets are being exaggerated by the media. "I think the security situation may be overblown," he says. "My own sense is that people who are unfamiliar with Haiti are raising the security issues. The Haitians are generally law-abiding people—unless they are desperate."

Sitting across the table, Kelly's longtime sidekick, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, chimes in: "There's a level of vigilantism in Haitian culture—if somebody robbed a chicken from a farmer, it's not unusual for the community take care of it."

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Kelly elaborates: "This is the culture of that community. There's a voodoo influence as well. They have a self-policing regimen, you might say, that seems to work for them. The community takes action in many parts of the country."

Going for gallows humor, Kelly adds: "The prison collapsed in the earthquake, so they lost a thousand bad guys."

Speaking of bad guys, the commissioner is clearly relieved by the White House's apparent about-face on Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed at the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

"New York is going to be in the crosshairs of the terrorists," Kelly says, "and we will continue to see ourselves as being at the top of the terrorist target list. Nothing has happened to move us down the list. So we are very much in the counter-terrorism business."

Last month Kelly outlined detailed security plans for a trial of KSM at a private breakfast with apprehensive business leaders. The plans involved a virtual lockdown of the immediate neighborhood around the courthouse and would have cost $200 million a year in extra policing, paid for by the feds, even though adversely affected local businesses wouldn't see a penny in government compensation.

"This what I do, and we would have done it," Kelly tells me. "It would have been challenging to do it, but I think all things considered, it's probably better that it's not here." As for reported Justice Department plans to hold terrorism trials at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, "nobody has said it directly," Kelly confides, "but I don't think that would be politically feasible at this point."

So why not just send KSM to Port-au-Prince, I ask, and submit him to the tender mercies of Haitian justice?

Kelly, for once, just chuckles and zips his lip.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.