As the man who served as New York’s police commissioner longer than anyone else, Ray Kelly is no stranger to riots and demonstrations in one of the biggest cities in the world. But even he is taken aback by the scale and force of the destruction that came in the form of violent riots last week. In an exclusive interview, the former commissioner weighs in on the damage caused by the George Floyd riots and what could have been done to prevent it.
New York has witnessed unprecedented, violent riots. What are your impressions of how they are being handled?
The murder of George Floyd was a despicable act universally condemned by law enforcement officers and decent-minded people everywhere. But the size and the speed with which demonstrations began took police throughout the country by surprise. New York was no exception.
In 2014, during the Eric Garner demonstrations, Mayor de Blasio developed a policy of giving demonstrators the ability to take over streets and close down bridges. He has continued this general approach now. It’s all connected to this magic word “de-escalation.”
De-escalation is a reasonable goal in most confrontations, but sometimes you have to be able to be assertive to restore order. The police were prevented from using tactics and equipment to address the disorder caused by a relatively small number of the demonstrators.
When I was the commissioner, we had disorder control training for large portions of the department on a regular basis. This was stopped when de Blasio took over. It sets a dangerous precedent when demonstrators can take over bridges and highways and police just have to wait them out.
De Blasio’s failure to continue or institute policies to properly protect against riots preceded the riots?
Yes. De Blasio was going to “reform” the police department. But so much of what he did sapped the department of its strength and capabilities. When de Blasio campaigned for mayor he pretended the city and its race relations were broken. Once in office, he pretended to fix them, and now, at this point, he has actually broken them.
In this current situation, the police were held back from doing the job they could have done. At a press conference, de Blasio said he had spoken to the police commissioner 50 times that day. That is a very bad sign; it’s micromanaging to the extreme.
What kind of confidence will New York citizens and business owners have in the police’s power to protect them going forward?
Unfortunately, it’s questionable, at least for a while. That’s because de Blasio continues to talk about how much he’s going to change the police. He has committed to “defund” the department by taking money out of the police budget and giving it to other city agencies. This will not give confidence to the business community. The department needs the appropriate funding to do its job.
What will the consequences of defunding mean for New Yorkers?
Defunding the police department and thereby reducing their resources will ultimately affect the minority communities disproportionately, and they will be less safe. They talk about over-policing in the minority communities. But the police are called in by the people in those communities who are looking for help. Police contacts throughout America are about 26% with African Americans. That’s twice their percentage of population in the United States.
Clearly, the city budget needs to be reduced, but it shouldn’t have anything to do with the current situation. The coronavirus and shutdown have taken a tremendous hit out of tax revenues in the city. The police budget in NYC is about $6 billion a year. But it would be disastrous if defunding is done to somehow penalize the police.
The notion of systemic racism in American police forces is promoted by many on the left, although statistics prove otherwise. What is the truth?
Can you have individual racism on the part of some police officers? Yes. Can you have cops who can be brutal and act out? Yes. But those numbers are very small. Cops are smarter than that. Police are wearing cameras. Everyone has a camera in public. People talk about changing the system. What are they going to do to make us safer?
Under the Bloomberg administration, the department became majority minority. We were the most diverse police department in the world with cops born in 106 countries, achieved by an unprecedented recruitment effort. We put a risk analysis system in place to look at cops who had an excessive number of complaints against them. I’m the commissioner who eliminated the choke hold.
In Minneapolis all four cops involved in George Floyd’s murder have been arrested. Yet the mayor there ludicrously authorized a police station to be burned. You talk about surrender. What are those optics? This never works. De Blasio’s logic is misguided. You take the bridge or block the FDR Drive for two hours and things will be alright? No, it never buys peace.
Is the media culpable for promoting the negative image of police officers?
Absolutely. Look at The New York Times. Virtually every article now is about supposed police abuse. They had an editorial that read “Mayor de Blasio, Open Your Eyes. The Police Are Out of Control.” The police are not out of control, but they didn’t have the tactics and strategies available that they should have employed. The mayor held them back.
President Trump is ultimately responsible for the security of the country. Do you think he should have overridden the governors and sent in U.S. troops?
That would have been a big mistake in my opinion. The last thing we want is a bunch of 19- and 20-year-old military people on the street. They don’t have the sophistication or experience to be on patrol in big cities. The governors have the capability to use troops if needed because of the state-controlled National Guard. But I would support using federal troops only as a very last resort.
Wouldn’t these forces have helped in protecting looted businesses?
You can debate whether or not the National Guard should have been called up in New York, but if the cops had been allowed to properly do their jobs, they could have taken care of much of this. We hear very little about the owners of small businesses. For example, there’s a strip of stores on Fordham Road that were totally burned out, but it’s in the Bronx so they get virtually no press. All these stores are owned by blacks and minorities. They don’t have insurance. They’re never coming back. There are hundreds of those stories like this, and I definitely feel for those people.
From bail reform to corona to the riots, everything has been converging simultaneously to harm New York City. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the city’s ability to come back?
I think the city always comes back, but it’s not going to come back in the short term. The next 18 months are going to be very difficult, so for that short term I am pessimistic. I think for the long term, New York will rebound. It will look somewhat different than it does now. And I think commercial real estate is going to take a significant hit.
You mentioned bail reform — that’s a disaster. The police deal with a recidivist criminal population, so if you arrest somebody, 90% of the arrestees under this “reform” are released without bail. They will commit more crime. Judges have no discretion to hold even the most dangerous criminals unless murder or something close to it is involved. Most of the people arrested for looting walked out of the police station while the arresting officer was still doing the paperwork.
Drive up Madison Avenue — everything is boarded up. It looks like a Third World country. How are we going to rebound from that? Are these stores going to open? When will they be willing to take down their barriers? I don’t know. We’re going to have to wait and see. This is uncharted water.