They took responsibility for keeping New York City safe in the aftermath of Sept. 11. And for years, their approach was seen as nearly beyond question, as the threat of terror attacks was kept at bay and the crime rate fell to record lows.
Now, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly near the end of Bloomberg’s tenure, a backlash against the street stops and surveillance programs they call cornerstones of building “America’s safest big city” has added a tone-changing last chapter to the narrative of policing New York in the past 12 years.
A federal judge this month gave credence to years of complaints that the New York Police Department has stopped millions
of people in a racially discriminatory way, ordering a monitor to oversee sizable changes. A City Council that scaled back a 2004 anti-racial profiling law this week voted to make it easier to sue over profiling claims and established a watchdog to investigate police procedures, defying Bloomberg vetoes.
Bloomberg is appealing the court ruling and signaled he will sue to try to block the profiling legislation by suing the city council for infringing on what he says is a state matter. But those prospective challenges may not be resolved before he leaves.
“We may have reached an historic point — depending upon what happens,” said William Eimicke, a Columbia University public affairs professor who was a deputy city fire commissioner from 2007 to 2010.
Bloomberg is clear about how he sees his policing record. And he warns that the recent calls to rein in stop and frisk might only prove his policies were right.
“It’s been almost 12 years now where people have walked the streets of New York City without having to look over their shoulder. I suspect that’s a pretty good legacy,” he said after the court decision. Break the NYPD’s embrace of stop and frisk, he admonished successors, and “be responsible for a lot of people dying.”
While the past two decades saw flares of racial tension, overall, the message many New Yorkers heard was one of foiled terror plots and America’s lowest big-city crime rate. Killings repeatedly hit the lowest points on record and are on track for another record low this year.
Still, over the last two years, long-rumbling complaints about stop and frisk became a roar amplified by the mayoral race. Bloomberg and Kelly went on the offensive, denouncing the practices’ critics and portraying the stakes in ominous terms. “Remember what happened here on 9/11,” Bloomberg chided.
It was a fight the powerful mayor and popular police commissioner seemed not to imagine they could lose. But at least for now, they have lost.
“Kelly and Bloomberg came in as crime fighters, and they may be going out as racial profilers,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor. Ultimately, Bloomberg and Kelly’s successes may be what’s remembered, said police history expert Tom Reppetto. Especially if it’s for worse.
“After this administration leaves, the public will say, if there’s a terrorist attack or crime starts to go up … ‘It would never have happened if Kelly were here,’” he said.