On Jan. 1, arguably one of the most controversial and longest serving police commissioners the New York Police Department has ever had, Raymond Kelly, will officially be stepping down.
“It was a great career choice for me,” Kelly said. “I’ve never regretted it.”
With more than 34,000 officers patrolling the streets and 51,000 total employees, the NYPD is the largest police force in the U.S., even larger than the FBI. By comparison, the Los Angeles Police Department has about 9,895 officers. And the department’s budget in 2013 alone was $4.6 billion, which comprises about 15 percent of the city’s entire budget.
Though the position of police commissioner doesn’t come without controversy, especially for a department as large as New York’s, 72-year-old Kelly’s last 12 years on the job have been particularly controversial as the commissioner implemented widespread use of already enacted policies such as stop-and-frisk, as well as the creation of a local counter-terrorism unit, which infiltrated mosques and activist groups, all in the name of reducing the city’s crime rate.
New York did see its crime rate drop by one-third under Kelly’s watch, which is about twice the national average. While Kelly attributes the crime drop to use of the controversial policies, many civil liberties advocates argue that the NYPD should use alternative tactics in order to reduce crime without infringing upon New Yorkers’ rights.
But Kelly says the solution is not that simple.
“We are doing all these things,” Kelly said, “because New York is still the No. 1 target. We have been targeted four times, twice successfully, and the city remains the most symbolic, substantive target for the terrorists. These are cunning, patient, deliberate people who want to kill us and kill us in big numbers.”
Although Kelly recognizes crime still exists throughout the city, he says people are no longer afraid to come out of their house.
But Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, disagreed with Kelly, saying “You can’t evoke national security as a pretext for unbridled … policing operations that very clearly threaten to make the fears of George Orwell look quaint.”
Jumaane Williams, a New York councilman from Brooklyn, who has vocalized support for NYPD reform, added: “The city is safer, but not everything Kelly has done has worked, and the arrogance of not talking about that is so frustrating because we could have got past the controversy a long time ago.”
Matters weren’t helped by an email WikiLeaks released last year from David Cohen, a former CIA analyst, who said that Americans have no idea how much their civil liberties have been violated by the NYPD alone.
To keep crime at bay in the city, NYPD officers have been instructed to use the legally-questionable policing tactic known as stop-and-frisk. Though use of stop-and-frisk began before Kelly took over as commissioner, during his reign, use of stop-and-frisks increased dramatically from 100,000 to 700,000 per year.
More than 5 million stops have occurred under Kelly’s watch alone, and according to reports from the NYPD itself, nearly nine out of 10 people stopped were completely innocent, most of whom were black or Latino males. Only 2 percent of stop-and-frisk incidents resulted in an officer discovering a weapon or contraband.
This statistic caused concern among civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims the policy has become a discriminatory police practice and a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Kelly has historically applauded stop-and-frisk and cited it as the reason New York City is “the safest big city in America.” But in January, a federal judge ruled that the program was unconstitutional. Yet that hasn’t stopped Kelly from defending the program. And even as Kelly prepares to leave the NYPD, he continues to argue that the police tactic is not racist in the slightest.
“Our general tactics and strategies have worked, and that’s why we see these record reductions … We did what we had to do to protect the city, we did it legally; we did it pursuant to oversight by the district court — and we’re still doing it legally, and we have sufficient monitoring by our legal cadre,” he said.
When asked about the racial profiling aspect of the program, Kelly said: “I have said all along that this is a false narrative, that we have very good relations with the communities that we serve. [‘Stop and frisk’] is a tool in the toolbox that I think has to be kept available for officers to use.”
But since controversy regarding the stop-and-frisk program began in recent years, the NYPD has reduced its use of the tactic. And despite a 51 percent decrease in the number of stop-and-frisk incidents in the first three months of 2013 alone, murder rates also dropped by 30 percent and overall crime fell by 2.7 percent.
After the 9/11 attacks, Kelly increased surveillance practices throughout the city, because the city “couldn’t rely on the federal government,” and created the NYPD counter-terrorism unit in 2002.
As part of the NYPD’s Counter-terrorism Unit, Kelly sent about 1,000 of the city’s roughly 35,000 officers abroad to countries such as Canada, the Dominican Republic, the UK, France, Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. And according to a report in New York Magazine, NYPD officers have flown to places such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan and Guantanamo to conduct “special interrogations.”
In order to run this counter-terrorism program, Kelly spends tens of millions of dollars each year to update the unit’s technological equipment, which includes placing CCTV security cameras throughout the city, as well as the creation of a Global Intelligence Room, complete with foreign programming, language specialists, high-end audio equipment, and more to track suspicious terrorist activity around the world.
Last week, the NYPD shared it was working on creating a “smart” patrol car, which is equipped with surveillance cameras, mobile license plate readers, radiation detectors and software that streams real-time data into the department’s central supercomputers. And the NYPD has also developed a mobile device that measures body heat. Based on a heat map display, an officer can determine whether a person has a solid object on them, such as a gun, based on where body heat is blocked.
Since the officers are not spies or federal intelligence officials, all of the information gathered by these officers is given directly to Kelly, not any federal intelligence agency.
Although there doesn’t appear to be any hostility about the program’s existence within the intelligence community since the FBI works with the NYPD in Washington, and the CIA gave the department its blessing to create the program, the police department reportedly does not disclose details about its international program to the City Council, Congress or to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Despite calls of “foul” by privacy rights advocates, Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg maintain that the department is using legal technology that the private sector has been using for a long time to monitor consumers.
But the department doesn’t just monitor New Yorkers via Orwellian techniques. Kelly also increased the number of intelligence officers, canine units, highway patrols, and heavily armed officers throughout the city, as a way to be prepared in case of an emergency and to act as a visual reminder that the NYPD is watching.
While the unit hasn’t been without its flaws, Kelly says the group has prevented as many as 16 terrorist attacks since 9/11. However, an analysis of the alleged terrorist plots that the NYPD stopped found that the NYPD only averted two terrorist attacks by itself, and either exaggerated or had no role in the others. Similarly, analysis of the list seems to indicate an exaggeration of the validity of all but three of the terrorist plots against New York.
As part of the department’s counter-terrorism efforts, the department was monitoring mosques and leftist political groups throughout the city, which it had classified as terrorist organizations, thereby allowing officers to investigate or surveil any person.
Because “terrorism enterprise investigations,” or TEIs, are investigative tools used by law enforcement to investigate terrorist cells, the investigations can continue for years, even though no person or organization had been criminally charged for acting as a terrorist or operating as a terrorism enterprise.
Police spokesman Paul Browne said the department’s decision to “monitor” the groups activities were legal and “an essential part of preparations for the huge crowds that came to the city.” He said some of the groups planned to block intersections and hack into Websites, which the NYPD was able to stop.
However, many news outlets reported that most of the protesters and activists were people “who gave no obvious sign of wrongdoing.” And documents obtained by The Associated Press showed that the NYPD continued to spy on these religious and political groups longer than they said they needed to monitor their activities.
Robert Riegle, a former Department of Homeland Security analyst who oversaw efforts to work with state and local agencies, agreed the department went too far, saying, “Any time that you begin to isolate certain communities from a policing perspective because you think there’s risk, you have the potential that somebody overreaches.”
Future full of changes?
When Kelly leaves the NYPD Jan. 1, he will be replaced by Bill Bratton,a former NYPD police commissioner.
During his reign, Bratton implemented many policing policies to remove small crimes from neighborhoods such as car thefts, crack dealers and petty criminals, since he thought that removing small crime from the street would lead to a reduced crime rate overall. He turned out to be right.
Though Bratton did allow officers to use stop-and-frisk, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio ran on a platform of disallowing the practice and reforming the department, which he says Bratton is aware of.
While Bratton has work to do, including winning over the confidence of New Yorkers and civil liberties groups, many such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, say they look forward to working with the new mayor and police commissioner to ensure that fundamental changes are made to the NYPD, including a top-to-bottom culture shift that ends racial profiling.