A changing of the guard: From Kelly to Bratton, redux

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has led the NYPD for 12 consecutive years. He was the first commissioner to serve under two different mayors. Bill Bratton will now be the second one. Credit: Getty Images
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has led the NYPD for 12 years. He was the first commissioner to serve under two different mayors. Bill Bratton will now be the second one.
Credit: Getty Images

New Yorkers who have been around long enough may feel like they’re experiencing deja vu in the coming weeks.

The city’s “new” police commissioner is not so new: Bill Bratton served as the NYPD’s top cop from 1994 to 1996.

In addition, the city has even seen this same transition before, when Bill Bratton took over the NYPD from Ray Kelly in 1994 after Kelly served in that post for two years under Mayor David Dinkins.

Len Levitt, in his blog NYPDConfidential, noted how the last time the city saw this changing of the guard, Kelly was leaving with a reputation for being a proponent — even a pioneer — of community policing in minority communities.

Kelly had made recruitment in minority communities a cornerstone of his tenure as commissioner under Dinkins, working to diversify a police force that was 11 percent black in a city with more than double that proportion of black residents.

Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said there were “incidents when [Kelly] would just come right out and support the community over the cops.”

Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his appointed commissioner, Bill Bratton, came in and, according to Levitt’s blog, “ignored Kelly’s many accomplishments, and ridiculed community policing as ‘social work.’” Bratton and Giuliani placed a premium on cutting crime, targeting even the lowest offenders as part of their broken windows approach to policing. They also emphasized a need to restructure and reform a department plagued with corruption.

This election is seeing a backwards version of that transition: Kelly is leaving as the hardline commissioner obsessed — successfully so — with bringing crime rates down to record lows, and Bratton is coming in with promises of more community engagement, more outreach and addressing issues like traffic deaths and at-risk youth. At a recent press appearance after a meeting with community leaders, Bratton framed these promises as a departure from a “city that has been so focused on crime reduction and terrorism prevention.”

It isn’t true, however, that crime only started to decline under Bratton. The drop in crime began with Kelly the first time around: In 1990, right in the middle of Mayor David Dinkins’ tenure, murders were at a historic high of 2,254. When Kelly left in 1994, crime data showed 1,927 murders for the previous year.

This time around, Kelly is leaving the city with an all-time record low of 333 murders, as of Dec. 29.

A former police reporter who covered the NYPD under Bratton said he and Giuliani were not inclined to let Kelly get credit for much at all. When data emerged that reflected well on Kelly’s ability to bring crime down, they released it in a Friday afternoon “news dump” — “which, of course, was a great time to bury things,” the reporter said.

Bratton’s relationship with the media has mixed reviews.

He has a reputation for seeming to seek out attention. Some attribute the souring of his and Giuliani’s relationship to that proclivity — Giuliani disliked how much credit Bratton was getting for the city’s safety.

Levitt said Bratton will bring greater transparency and more “collegial” relationships with other agencies, and even with the press.

Levitt, a longtime thorn in Kelly’s side, said that while “Kelly can only have relationships with reporters who agree with him, Bratton is much more accepting.”

“He can take criticism better,” Levitt said.

But the reporter who covered Bratton’s NYPD had a similar criticism of Bratton: Certain reporters would get shut out, whether at the direction of City Hall or Bratton himself.

“But there was no doubt that the guy had and probably still has a big ego and he loved the limelight,” the reporter added.

Some law enforcement officials who know Bratton well agree with Levitt, however.

“I think he gets an unfair rep for the way he works with the media,” said Al O’Leary, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. He worked under Bratton when Bratton was heading up the Transit Police. “It’s been misinterpreted as being a function of ego and it’s not.”

Rather, O’Leary said, Bratton’s relationship with the media was strategic.

“In my very close working experience with him, he used the media to inform, in our case, transit police officers, and in the case of when he was police commissioner, police officers, of what he was trying to get accomplished and what he expected of them,” O’Leary explained.

O’Leary said memos can often go unread.

“But one story in a tabloid and your entire force sees it,” he said. “I think that was misinterpreted as a function of ego when in truth he communicates with the people he’s trying to inspire through the media.”

The reporter who had covered the NYPD under Bratton agreed with that assessment in part. When Bratton first took over as police commissioner, he went to work restructuring and “re-engineering” the police department.

“If you talk to him, he’ll tell you that it was part of the re-engineering and all of that,” the reporter said.

In fact, in a possible example of such use of the media, the same newspaper reported an almost identical memo this time and last time.

The memo, revealed a couple of weeks ago and 20 years ago by the New York Daily News, demands resumes from high-ranking NYPD personnel. De Blasio spokeswoman Lis Smith told the News the request “is a standard procedure practiced by Commissioner Bratton.” 

“He has used it in every department he’s gone into as a way to evaluate the department as a whole and to get to know the people he will be working with,” she said.

When asked after a post-Christmas NYPD graduation ceremony if there were specific people he felt should get to keep their positions, Kelly replied tersely, “I’m not going to comment on that.”

But according to the former NYPD reporter, Kelly was not pleased when Bratton did this the first time around.

“The first thing Bratton did was he kind of fired the top Kelly guys in the department,” the reporter said. “Fired them, forced them to retire, whatever.”

The reporter credited it as “kind of a smart move if you want to reorganize an organization,” as Bratton was attempting to, but said it added to the perception of trying to deny Kelly credit for any substantive progress.

This time, after 12 years in his post, the progress the 47-year veteran of the force has made can’t be denied.

And some of that progress has continued from the work he began at the very start of his first stint as commissioner.

“The department is more diverse than ever,” said Louis Turco, an active-duty lieutenant and the president of the Lieutenants Benevolent Association. “I see my promotees and my union being more diverse than it’s ever been.”

This is something Kelly pointed to as an element of his legacy of which he is most proud.

“This is the most diverse city in the world and we now have the most diverse police department in the world,” Kelly said after presiding over an NYPD graduation ceremony with the mayor recently.

Kelly said the graduation ceremony reminded him of his own graduation from the department 47 years prior.

“It was a great career choice for me,” he said almost wistfully. “I’ve never regretted it.”

Kelly held nearly every rank in the department, until making it up to Two-Star Chief and being promoted directly to First Deputy Commissioner in 1990.

Eugene O’Donnell, who said he has advised de Blasio on public safety issues, agreed that the city has made great strides under Kelly.

“There’s still work to be done, but there’s no doubt there’s been a miracle,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell was an officer under Kelly at the 71st precinct in Crown Heights, Brooklyn when Kelly was a captain in the early 1980s. O’Donnell described his former boss as a “singular leader” of “the highest integrity.”

“He was a great leader then and he’s a great leader now,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell said cops used to call Kelly “commissioner” even back then.

“It was obvious to us that he was going to be at the top of the organization,” he said. “There was nowhere for Ray Kelly to go but the highest ranks of the organization.”

Other retired law enforcement have been quoted suggesting Kelly did not spend enough time on the street to really have a sense of what it’s like for cops on the ground. But O’Donnell disputed published reports alleging resentment towards Kelly for his fairly meteoric rise through the ranks.

He said that as a captain, Kelly had no problem “putting his hands in the mix and backing us up in the field.”

“He has an uncanny memory for people’s names,” O’Donnell said. “He seemed to know every single member of the department. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the job and the people on the job.”

O’Donnell pointed out Kelly’s “unique connection” to terrorism: He was the police commissioner during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and earned national notoriety for his handling of the subsequent investigation, even being offered (but turning down) the position of FBI director.

“The chilling thing is,” O’Donnell said, “they promised to come back.”

That vow, and the ultimately successful return, would necessarily have bolstered Kelly’s vigilance. Kelly has in his second run as commissioner been sometimes criticized for going too far with surveillance in the name of counterterrorism. His anti-terrorism efforts have also been behind unprecedented technological advances in the NYPD.

“If he’s a little bit of a zealot on this, well, he should be,” O’Donnell said. “These guys tried to take the building down in ’93 and they failed, and then they came back.”

“That’s a narrative you can never ignore,” O’Donnell added. “That was a momentously horrific execution of a plan.”

Kelly repeated twice after the recent graduation ceremony that he had no regrets, speaking warmly of a career he said was perfect for him.

Just a few months ago, when asked what the hardest part of being a cop is, Kelly paused, seeming to struggle for an answer.

“You know, I love it,” he said finally. “So I don’t see it being a hard — you know, I was a police officer. So I don’t see it — I never saw it as being hard or challenging. It’s either in your blood or it isn’t. I can’t think of too many things that are hard. There’s excitement, there’s an element of danger but that’s just the reality of it.”

That was at a benefit dinner for the windows and children of cops and firefighters killed in the line of duty. Though he grew increasingly defensive as his legacy seemed to come under greater scrutiny in final weeks of his tenure, his love for the police force never seemed to waver. He would tout statistics and poll numbers and be dismissive of complaints he said were enlarged by media reports, political campaigns and lawsuits. But at the same time, he maintained the job was “just a wonderful opportunity” for him and his family.

As for Bratton, Kelly was able to muster some kind words with just a few days left to go.

“Bill Bratton’s very experienced,” Kelly said after the graduation ceremony. “I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat


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