In Pursuit of Law & Order

Raymond Kelly, then-Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, waits to speak during a national summit of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, April 15, 2008, in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Former NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly takes on global anti-Semitism

Then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly speaks at the Business Expo and Employment Fair at Columbia University, which is part of Harlem Week, on
August 9, 2012, in New York City.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

One of the most celebrated and highly regarded figures in law enforcement, former Commissioner Raymond Kelly is the familiar face of the NYPD, both on a city and on national level. He was the longest-serving police commissioner in New York City history, having served under Mayor David Dinkins from 1992 to 1994, and again under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2002 to 2013.

Under President Clinton, Kelly served as Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service and Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. He holds a JD from St. John’s University School of Law, and an MPA from Harvard University. As the recipient of many prestigious awards, Kelly is best known for creating the first counterterrorism bureau in the country, working tirelessly to prevent terror attacks on American soil.

Now in the private sphere, Kelly continues to work for the public welfare. He recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Europe to evaluate rising anti-Semitism there and the means to combat it. In an interview with Hamodia, Kelly discussed the events and experiences that shaped his career and that continue to impact the world today.

With many years in public service and law enforcement, what do you think are the biggest changes that have transpired?

One of the biggest changes since when I started is the quality of people. When I joined law enforcement, I started as a police cadet and also as a college student. But I was in the first cadet program that had that vision, because police then generally didn’t have an education. They’ve become more educated now.

Plus, technology. Technology is a boon to law enforcement in so many ways. There are some downsides, but clearly it’s helped make this country safer in so many ways, like recordkeeping data, cameras, and communication devices. I see that as a major improvement over policing from when I started.

What do you see as the biggest challenges going forward?

Right now, the reality is that the police are not favored in many communities of color in this country. The reality is also that the majority of crime happens there, certainly in big cities. So the challenge is to effectively police in those communities and have a strong relationship with them so that they can work harmoniously together. That’s something that is not happening all over America, where there’s friction between the police and those communities. Because of the nature of policing, there’s always the potential for friction.

Then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly (L) speaks as then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C) listens on August 19, 2013, in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Has that friction intensified over the years?

From my perspective, it’s actually better now than 30 years ago, but it flares up. Certain events will take place, which will be a trigger mechanism for groups to criticize the police. The Ferguson shooting was one of those events that gave rise to organizations such as Black Lives Matter. As a result of those high-profile cases, the police have backed off from proactive policing, which means not being fully engaged in crime fighting. I think there’s a backing off by political leaders. As a result, there’s a backing off by the police, pretty much around America.

Doesn’t the community suffer as a result?

Yes. And it’s up to the community to point that out. There’s nobody more concerned about the deaths of young people than the police, yet they are often blamed or criticized for not being sensitive enough or even for taking a life, which is a terrible thing to have to do.

Attitudes towards crime have shifted on the left to the degree that presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren feels comfortable calling our criminal justice system “racist… from front to back,” and Mayor de Blasio invoked the challenges of his “bi-racial” son during the Democratic primary debates. How concerned are you that positions that used to be considered extreme have gained a foothold in mainstream politics?

People say strange things when they’re running in primaries to garner a vote. And the Democratic Party has moved far to the left so that’s who they cater to. It has the potential to take hold, if you keep putting out this message, but I don’t think that this is a view that is consistent with mainstream America.

Since 9/11, terrorist attacks have waned, but the threat has still not disappeared. Do you think Americans, and in particular New Yorkers, have grown complacent?

Yes. I think citizens have become complacent. Hopefully, government has not. We put in the system here, unlike any other city in this country, in the fight against terrorism. We have the largest police department in the nation and the most diverse police department probably in the world. At the time of the attack, to jumpstart our counterterrorism efforts, I brought in expertise at the time — the FBI, CIA, DIA. I brought in the marine general to head the operation. And I assigned officers overseas to act as listening posts. So we had no terrorist attacks on the Bloomberg watch. There were 16 attempts, and some since I’ve left, and none came to fruition. That’s because of good work on the part of the NYPD, the FBI and sheer luck. Hopefully the level of vigilance remains high in government agencies.

Aboard the USS Monticello after Operation Harvest Moon, Vietnam, 1965.

Do you think a serious threat still remains?

Yes. The jihadis are constantly in a state of war and constantly looking for ways to attack America, attack Israel. That is an operating premise that you need in order to protect anything. A little over a year ago, there was a terrorist attack on the jogging path in lower Manhattan. It’s not ancient history. The threat remains. I don’t see the threat diminished so much.

What kind of criticism did you encounter while implementing counterterrorism methods, such as surveillance in mosques?

We’re always going to be criticized, certainly in this city. Just to put it in context — we had 2,700 people killed on this island. So we had to do things. The criticism had no basis. What? We shouldn’t protect the city? It wasn’t against the law or a violation of anything. In terms of going into mosques, we only follow leads. And if we had a lead that led us into, say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral or Temple Emmanuel, we’d follow the lead.

This is a very diverse city and a very diverse police department. On our watch, here in New York City, we had cops that were born in 106 countries. We were able to have an undercover regiment, and it worked quite successfully. We even assigned people overseas to work with local law enforcement, and they were listening posts who learned about what was going on in different countries and their techniques. It worked very well.

Kelly with his son Jim in a radio car in the 23rd Precinct in East Harlem, 1971.

You recently conducted a fact-finding mission in Europe to assess anti-Semitism. What led to you to this investigation?

Ronald Lauder is the key to all of this. He’s totally dedicated and committed to protecting the Jewish Diaspora all over the world and concerned about their safety. Because of my background, he asked me to make recommendations to make them safer. We didn’t need another study to say anti-Semitism is out there. We know that. But our mission was [to find out] how to make Jewish communities safer in various countries in Europe.

I brought on board a team of experts and we went to the U.K., Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Sweden, Denmark and Poland. We interviewed many people and guaranteed their anonymity. We spoke to chief rabbis, Muslim leaders, Jewish men and women on the street, the wealthy class and the working class, those who wore kippas on the street in Paris, etc., and got a lot of information that normally doesn’t show up.

What did your findings show?

There’s no surprise —anti-Semitism is ingrained in Europe and is growing, fed largely by the internet, and satellite programs from the Middle East. It comes basically from three things — the populous move to the right that’s happening in Europe and which has emboldened the neo-Nazis. They really have always been there and now they go out and demonstrate and show their muscle.

Obviously, the BDS movement is alive and well on the left, mostly on campuses. They say it’s about anti-Zionism and about Israel and its policies, but it amounts to anti-Semitism. And it generates anti-Semitism. It translates into vituperative, nasty rhetoric and stuff.

Then, anti-Semitism is obviously from Muslims. Look at France. You have the largest Jewish community there outside of the U.S. and Israel, yet it’s less than 1 percent of the population. So they have very little voting power, very little juice. The Muslims make up 8-9 million. That’s a significant number. That’s where the violence and the harassment emanates from. Most of the harassment is spitting and taking off kippas from people’s heads.

There’s a 74 percent increase in violence against Jews in France. But nobody believes that number; they think it’s much higher. Now you also have the Yellow Vest movement, which has a significant anti-Semitic strain to it. There are those who believe that the Jews are responsible for everything bad in France, and these people seem to follow that track as well.

Kelly speaking with a community leader in the 106th Precinct in Queens—known as the Stun Gun Precinct. (Mike Lipack/New York Daily News)

What is the response of those governments’ law enforcement to the problem?

Weak. In France, there’s a secular form of government. That’s a problem for the Jewish community, because they are not going to officially recognize religion, so it’s all lip service and not much activity. You had Mrs. Halimi killed in 2017 and they wouldn’t make it a bias crime for over a year.

Would you attribute this to anti-Semitism within the leadership?

It’s hard to say. Anti-Semitism has been alive and well in France for a long time, long before the Dreyfus affair. Jews were rejected from France, from England, from Spain. Hate speech is against the law in France, but it’s never enforced. They are bombarded with anti-Semitic internet attacks and information cartoons, and the government could do a much more effective job of searching it out if they wanted to.

What kind of practical implications resulted from your findings, and are solutions to be accomplished in conjunction with European governments or with European Jewish communities?

Good question. In addition to getting more accurate information, I’ll tell you a few things we want to do. Let’s take France. There’s an organization called SPCJ, Service de Protection de la Communaute Juive, which is a Jewish volunteer organization started in 1980, with a few thousand members. They need to be made into a much stronger organization, which will pull the Jewish community closer together. They need to be enforced with more volunteers and better equipment. So we are doing it, in conjunction with the French Jewish community. The government is pretty much sitting on the sidelines.

The White House
After the peaceful transfer of power in Haiti, catching a ride back to the U.S. on Air Force One with then-President Clinton.

Would this mitigate the rise of aliyah of French Jews to Israel?

Aliyah is a funny thing because around 8,000-9,000 French Jews made aliyah in 2015 and only 2,000 did last year. So for me it’s a measure of what’s driving people, and the motivation is not as clear as it was in 2015. Contrary to the prime minister of Israel, who wants more Jews to go to Israel, I would like to see that slow down as an indicator of a higher comfort level. Also, some people have come back from aliyah because of professional, financial and language challenges. So it’s not so clear-cut [as] a solution.

Would you say it’s different in England, where there’s an indication of impending mass aliyah if Corbyn gets into power and wields anti-Semitism at the government level?

Everyone is scared of Corbyn. Here’s the difference —there’s no state religion in France but in England there is. So the police are much more involved with the organization called CST, Community Security Trust, which is devoted to ensuring the safety of the Jewish community in the U.K. and which has been around for 25 years.

The police are much more involved with CST, which receives about 18 million pounds a year from the government, as compared to SPCJ, which only receives around 3 million euros, in an indirect way, even though it represents a much larger Jewish population. In England, there are only 200,000 to 250,000 Jews, mostly in London and Manchester. I know there’s a lot of unease where Corbyn is concerned, but they’re better protected in England right now.

Recovering the remains of a fallen NYPD officer at Ground Zero in 2002. (NYPD)

What differences do you see between Western European countries, where there are more Muslims, and Eastern European countries, where there are fewer Muslims?

That’s very interesting, because the Jewish community in Hungary is not crazy about Prime Minister Orban, yet they are better protected there. Orban built a wall between Hungary and Serbia, and there are very few Muslims there. The police are located within the Jewish community and they’ve given them equipment. The reality is that the Jews, around 100,000 in Budapest, feel very safe there. I attribute this to the policy expressed by the government — they put their money where their mouth is.

In Poland, there were 3 million Jews before the War and now there are only around 12,000 Jews. They are apparently not threatened physically, but they feel a lot of anti-Semitism in the air.

Do you think the Polish government, intent on whitewashing their role in the Holocaust, contributes to that atmosphere?

Absolutely. One of the most moving things I’ve ever done is go to Auschwitz. I don’t know what kind of human being would go there and not feel moved. A lot of people were tearing up, and I was a little too. I’ve visited Dachau a couple of times, but the message from Auschwitz is its size and scope. I recommend everyone to go there regardless of religion. 1.1 million Jews, a couple hundred thousand Roma, a couple hundred thousand Poles died in that spot. You look at 40,000 pairs of boots. Man’s inhumanity to man is just incredible.

How would you transfer any lessons learned in Europe to America, where anti-Semitism is rising and Jews are still reeling from the shootings at Pittsburgh and Poway?

Things have changed, and this should be the wake-up call. You don’t want to wait for another incident to happen. We need to focus on security and making Jewish communities safer. Look at Pittsburgh and Poway. Two mental cases walked in with rifles. It’s unlikely that it would happen in France or Germany, because they’re much more security-conscious. They’re watching the doors, they’re screening people. In my judgment that’s what’s got to happen here. It might take some physical changes.

Passing security cameras at the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative on
April 23, 2013, in New York City.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

What would you recommend be done to best protect Jewish places of worship, schools, community centers, etc.?

You need a comprehensive security plan. You sit down with the police and talk about how to better protect yourselves. In Poway, that guy’s gun jammed. Otherwise he could have killed 50 people. In Europe, they are very sensitive to who comes in and who goes out of a synagogue. They use a double-door system. You need vigilance at the entrance points, and screening. It can be done with volunteers. You need a greater spirit of volunteerism, like you see in Europe.

You need to know which Jewish institutions are doing what, and you also need partnership with the police. You get that in New York City. It’s been a long position with the NYPD working closely with the Jewish community. You get it in other places as well, because you demand it. There are also grants of security available from the Department of Homeland Security. It needs to be done on a nationwide basis.

Mayor de Blasio blamed the 90 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in New York City on “a right-wing movement,” ignoring both the minority perpetrators accountable for the vast number of these crimes and the left-wing, anti-Israel BDS movement. Are you concerned that such statements may lead to further tolerance of such crimes because they aren’t identified?

Well, I hope not. I don’t think the police department would tolerate it. This is another case of pandering for primary votes. Fortunately, in New York we have the hate crimes task force, which investigates hate speech, and they’re very good. Investigations are locally done.

I actually think anti-Semitism is underreported. When things happen, like in Poway, then people tend to report it after their consciousness has been raised. I think Charlottesville raised the consciousness of federal agencies, who weren’t looking at the neo-Nazis here as they should have. Hopefully they’re looking at them again. They’re a small minority, but look what they did. These people are organizing on the internet.

On a personal note, of all your accomplishments, which are you most proud of?

I’m very fortunate to have had a lot of great opportunities. During my years in the Bloomberg era, from 2002 to 2013, we drove down crime, a 15 percent reduction, with 6,000 fewer police officers than the previous administration. It was a long run, and I was proud to be a part of it.

But I’m probably most proud of putting together the counterterrorism regiment here in New York right after 9/11. We were very concerned that it wasn’t a question of if but when another attack was going to take place, and I think we gave people a certain comfort level. We put a lot of meaningful programs in place that are still in operation. Things changed then because the world changed.