Misinformation. That’s the problem causing public misperception of the New York Police Department’s policies on issues such as stop and frisk, the monitoring of locations where some individuals could be fomenting terrorism and the clearing of protesters from Zuccotti Park, according to Commissioner Ray Kelly.
The department’s policy on detaining suspicious people and searching them for weapons or drugs is nothing new, Kelly says. Its investigations into potential terror hot spots, many in the Muslim community, is not blanket surveillance and is perfectly legal, he insists. Officers did not wantonly manhandle journalists as they emptied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan of the Occupy Wall Street protesters last November, he asserts.
Kelly offered his views on those issues and many more, including the massive drop in crime over the last 20 years, efforts to combat sex trafficking and how the new police academy in College Point is shaping up during an exclusive May 31 interview with the Queens Chronicle.
The department is doing more with less, as its ranks have fallen from about 41,000 at the peak to a little under 35,000 now, the commissioner said. He said he is not thinking about running for mayor, as some right-leaning political watchers hope he will do, but is continuing to focus on the job he’s had for 10 years and continues to work at seven days a week. He declined to name a favorite candidate for mayor, but said he would want someone in the office like Mayor Bloomberg, whom he said has been highly supportive of the department.
Asked if the mayor’s support shouldn’t translate into higher staffing levels for the department, he said the budget has forced reductions.
“We certainly could have gone lower, and budget people being what they are, they’d like to see us go lower than we have,” he said. “This is a level that has helped us reduce crime. Would we like more? Sure, I’d like more police officers. But it’s not in the cards right now.”
New York remains the safest big city in the country as measured by the rate of violent crime, the commissioner said, adding that security is “the foundation of so many good things,” namely an economy that fared better than that of any other major city in the country after the economic crisis of 2008.
“Our population is increasing,” he said. “People want to come here. Why do they want to come here? One of the main reasons is it’s safer, and it’s getting safer. ... That’s good for the economy and it’s good for all of us.”
Among the issues the department has taken the most heat over is stop and frisk, the policy of police officers detaining people they deem suspicious and searching them for weapons, drugs or other illegal possessions when they deem it’s warranted. Kelly said it’s not so much that more people are being searched, just that the department is recording them more carefully. And he defended the practice as “a lifesaver” that prevents crime, and is authorized by criminal procedure law.
“We are saving lives here,” he said. “I think stop and question and sometimes frisk — which is less than 50 percent of the time — is a significant factor in this regard.”
From 1992 through 2001, there were 11,028 murders in the city, Kelly said, compared to 5,430 in the decade that Bloomberg has been in office.
And, Kelly added, 90 percent of the victims are black or Hispanic, members of the very minority communities where some people complain they are unfairly targeted for searches by the police.
“We’re saving lives,” Kelly said, “mostly young men of color.”
He added that most officers in the department are members of minority groups, and have been since 2006.
The commissioner also defended the department’s use of plainclothes officers to gather intelligence to fight terrorism — noting that 14 plots against the city have been thwarted since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He insisted everything the department is doing, including checking out potential sources of terror in Muslim communities, is legal and proper, as per the Handschu Agreement, the legal doctrine under which the police can do surveillance of political organizations.
The agreement was modified in 2002 to allow the police to investigate political activity without suspicion of a crime, to prevent future terror attacks, Kelly noted, and anytime the police want to gather intelligence under its guidelines, they need the approval of the Handschu Authority, which grants warrants.
The agreement traces back to 1985, and was the result of a 1971 class action lawsuit, Handschu v. Special Services Division, brought over police surveillance of radical groups at the time, such as the Black Panthers.
Kelly criticized the Associated Press for its recent Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the department’s surveillance of law-abiding Muslims as “disingenuous” and “unfair,” saying the vast majority of the articles did not even mention the Handschu agreement.
“We follow leads wherever they take us,” he said. “Terrorism is theater, and New York is the biggest stage.”
He added that he meets weekly with leaders of the Muslim community to discuss the department’s policies.
“Certainly the meetings are cordial, but what we’re fighting is misinformation,” he said.
Kelly also said the NYPD was unfairly criticized over its removal of protesters from Zuccotti Park last year, saying the people who were arrested had defied legal orders to leave the park and were pushing through police lines after monitoring department radios to learn what officers were planning.
Paul Browne, the deputy commissioner for public information, who accompanied Kelly to the interview, added that only one journalist was arrested during the operation, despite stories to the contrary, which he called “a total myth.” Occupy Wall Street protesters were forging press credentials in an effort to get through the police lines, he added, but that doesn’t mean actual reporters were arrested.
Kelly also addressed sex trafficking, an issue that has gotten wide attention in Queens because of its heavy immigrant population. Noting that he had started a human trafficking unit when he was in the department’s Vice Division, Kelly said it’s a tough crime to combat because victims so often don’t want to come forward, often because of coercion they face in their home countries.
Now, he said, the department focuses more on arresting the customers of prostitutes, often using policewomen as lures.
The commissioner touted the new police academy being built in College Point as the “West Point of law enforcement,” saying it will not only train future NYPD officers but police from all over the country.
“Firing ranges, driving ranges, everything will happen at this location,” he said. “It will be a huge facility, state of the art.”
In Queens, the commissioner said, while crime is much lower than in years past, there has been an increase in shootings in the southern precincts, such as the 113th in Jamaica. Many involve small sub-gangs, known as crews, he noted, and the shootings are often retaliatory.
Across the borough, in the 115th Precinct, which covers East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, the department has been aggressive since the area suffered some shootings earlier this year, and the commissioner was glad to report there hasn’t been one there in 28 days.
One key in how the department can respond to crime in ways it could not before is Compstat, the crime tracking system that lets commanders see where spikes are occurring and respond. The system “has revolutionized policing,” Kelly said.
Now the department is working with the Department of Defense and Scotland Yard, the London police service, in developing another revolutionary device that would allow police to see if someone is carrying a weapon electronically, the commissioner said. The system is one that analyzes electrical waves naturally emitted by the body, which are blocked by items like guns. But it’s only in the developmental stages, and Kelly could not estimate when it might be put into use.
“It’s hard to put a time frame on it. I hope it’s sooner rather than later,” he said, adding, “The device is big and there are some legal issues. We understand that.”
Kelly, 70, has been with the Police Department for 44 years.
CORRECTION: This article was amended to correct two errors. Commissioner Kelly at first said the Associated Press series did not mention the Handschu Agreement, twice saying he didn't believe the reporters even knew about it. But he also said that some of the articles, published deep into the series, did mention Handschu. And he called the series "disingenuous," not "dangerous." We regret the errors.