Ex-NYPD Commissioner: How to make America's police departments better

Ray Kelly book cover

Editor’s note: The following  column is excerpted from the book “VIGILANCE: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City." Copyright (c) 2015 by Ray Kelly. It is reprinted by permission of Hachette Books/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly weighs in on terror hit list, police under attack in America


Twelve years is a long time to be New York City police commissioner, the longest by far that anyone has ever served in the job. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed me commissioner after 9/11, I divided the task ahead into three main categories—the three Cs, I called them—counterterrorism, crime fighting, and community relations. All three, I knew, would require energy, creativity, and constant vigilance, more even than I imagined, as things turned out. In all three areas, I am proud to say, we saw tremendous successes.

As I write this today, our nation’s police departments are facing enormous scrutiny. Crime nationwide remains low by historic standards, but there is no denying we’ve had a rash of controversial cases of police officers killing unarmed civilians. Each specific case is different. Some complaints are legitimate. Others are overblown. Some reactions are justified. Others are just excuses for looting and criminality. Still, many Americans feel intensely aggrieved at the behavior of some police officers.

Law enforcement agencies have to be open to asking for help. Police need support from communities, from the street corners to the executive suites.

There is too much anxiety, too little trust, and far too much misunderstanding on all sides. But one thing is certain already: We’ve had more than enough sloganeers on all sides of these issues. It’s time for smart people who understand the complexities to start making some key distinctions here.

First, there’s no need to panic. Today’s police overall are more professional, better educated, better trained, more diverse, and more restrained than ever before. Take the NYPD: in 1971, NYPD officers killed ninety-three people in the course of policing New York City. In 2013, my last year as commissioner, our officers killed eight. Other cities have also seen significant drops. I wish all these numbers were zero. But this could not be called an explosion of police violence.

We have to take the challenges of the moment and mold them into long-lasting improvements. The phenomena of cell phone cameras is a perfect opportunity. Everyone over ten years of age carries a camera now. That has undeniably altered the relationship between the community and the police. After I saw the brutal killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, I became a believer in police officers wearing cameras. I believe that no one required to wear a camera would commit such a dastardly act. The police are being photographed anyway. In the long run, police are better off with their own records of how they have behaved.

On-the-job diversity will also help. Diversity isn’t a panacea. It won’t automatically make everyone get along. Minority cops can be bad cops just like white cops can. It’s always a mistake to judge an individual on an arbitrary factor such as skin color. That said, life on the street is almost always smoother when the police roughly resemble the makeup of the community. It opens the department to fresh perspectives and new ideas.

Smaller departments should be consolidated. The majority of the departments in America have fourteen or fewer officers. St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located, has ninety municipalities and fifty police departments. When major events happen in small jurisdictions, those departments must rely on mutual assistance from neighboring law-enforcement agencies. This can result in uncertainty over authority, rules of engagement, capabilities and accountability. Greater professionalism could be attained by merging some of those little police departments. The federal government should encourage and facilitate such moves.

Police departments everywhere should also be largely demilitarized. In 1994, with the best of intentions, the U.S. Department of Defense began dispersing surplus military equipment to police agencies across America. It was vehicles at first, Jeeps and Humvees, even a few armored weapons carriers. Once the program got started, the variety of equipment kept expanding. No one forced the police to use this stuff. But human nature being what it is, a Humvee sitting in a police station parking lot is extremely unlikely to remain there long, and all that heavy hardware divided the police from the community.

In times of emergency—major storms, massive street disorders—the equipment can still be made available through state armories. But it shouldn’t be used on day-to-day patrols and certainly not when common sense tells us it will only exacerbate tensions.

Police also need better education. Major departments should consider requiring a four-year college degree for all police officers. The job is different now—more complex, more subtle, more legalistic, more closely watched, more culturally diverse. A four-year college degree is the very basic requirement for teachers. Many are expected to earn master’s degrees. Why should policing require any less?

Law enforcement agencies have to be open to asking for help. Police need support from communities, from the street corners to the executive suites. Briefing community leaders before engaging in tactical operations can be an effective way of obtaining needed support. We need rappers and sports stars sending out nonviolent messages—not glorifying criminality or committing crimes of their own. We need clergy organizing their congregations and preaching peace in the streets. We need business leaders providing jobs for the young getting started in careers. We need it all.

Law enforcement leaders are in a period of soul searching. They know that, as a profession, we’ve had some remarkable achievements countering terrorism and fighting crime. But they see the media’s coverage and hear all the debates, and they can’t help but wonder, Is that really what we’re doing as a profession, oppressing the people we are here to serve?

The answer is no, we aren’t. All around the country, fine police departments are doing the job they are supposed to. We can’t, as some politicians are insisting, use this time to lighten up or tolerate more crimes and violations.

If we ease up on the things that made us successful, if we bow too much to the political pressures of the day, we are going to see more young people dying, more young lives lost before they’ve had a chance to live.

With fifty years in public service, Ray Kelly is one of the world's most highly esteemed law enforcement leaders. He is the author of "VIGILANCE: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City" (HachetteBooks/Hachette Book Group, September 2015). A forty-three-year veteran of the NYPD, Kelly served in twenty-five different commands before being named police commissioner in 1992. Kelly was again appointed in January 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, making Kelly the longest serving police commissioner in the city's history. Kelly holds degrees from Manhattan College, St. John's University School of Law, New York University Graduate School of Law, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.