THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Raymond W. Kelly
Title: “To Be a Cop…”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, a role I began in 1956. Before that, of course, and ever since, I’ve worn a variety of other hats as well, one or another of which from time to time has seemed best to identify on the air as it might relate to my guest or guests.
Well, that’s true in spades today, to be sure, because for some time now I’ve served as Vice Chairman of the New York City Police Foundation, and my guest is Vietnam veteran, Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, attorney at law, 30 year veteran of the New York City Police Department…its Top Cop, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.
Now, Ray Kelly has one heck of a job: demanding, controversial, made impossible…with policing problems as enormous as the urban population he must protect day and night against the onslaught of crime and violence that becomes ever more formidable in our times.
This Top Cop is particularly articulate in voicing the larger problems the police and all other law enforcement agencies face in America. And he does so eloquently, convincingly.
But today, however, I want instead to ask him something more personal about the men and women in blue: What makes them tick, what makes them want to be cops.
Now, I’m not a police or fire buff, but all my life I’ve marveled that day in and day out so many of these brave people should put their lives on the line for the rest of us.
And then, late one night some weeks ago, I was privileged for some hours to ride along on radio patrol with a couple of absolutely terrific young cops from the 9th Precinct here in Manhattan.
And that’s when I determined to ask Commissioner Kelly to join me here to talk about their bravery, their intrepitude, their decency and their willingness to protect our lives with their own.
The question at hand: What does it take to be a cop in violence-ridden urban America? And that is the question, Commissioner. How do you, how do you get these young men and women?
KELLY: I think obviously television and the excitement that it portrays as far as policing attracts a certain number of people. But I think the overwhelming desire on the part of people who become police officers is to “do good”, to help their fellow citizens. And I can’t think of a job where you can do it every day…as, as often you can being a police officer in urban America…particularly in New York.
HEFFNER: How do you account, and I’m sure it’s true not just in New York, but in other large urban areas, for what may seem to be an increasing…well, disdain may not be the word…increasing misunderstanding of the decency and integrity of these young men and women?
KELLY: I think being a police officer today gives you a built-in public relations problem, if you will. Just the nature of policing. We are, many times, the bearer of bad news…when people die or are injured, the police are the ones who bring that message. We’re the only agency in government authorized to use physical force, or, or deadly physical force in some cases. Police officers give you traffic summonses…that, that sort of thing…in an age when the desire for individual freedoms are increasing all the time, so these, these two things come into conflict many times. And there is a lot of tension out there and if you ride in a police car…you can, you can feel when you go on some of these assignments, you can see it in people’s faces.
HEFFNER: What I felt mostly, I must admit, was leaving the precinct house and just hearing call after call where these guys had to be…had to be on their guard. I mean it wasn’t just for five minutes and wasn’t just because Gerry Bloch and I were in the car, it was because this was their job. Assignment after assignment, day after day. How do they take it? How did you take it, you were a young cop, you’ve been here on the force most of your productive life.
KELLY: I’ve enjoyed it from day one…I’ve never had a bad day. Some days have been better than others…
HEFFNER: Even as Commissioner…you never had a bad day?
KELLY: Even as Commissioner. Even as Commissioner…I’m, I’m still having fun. It’s not a job for everyone, granted. But, I think the, the excitement, the ability to help people, the adrenaline is flowing and then there are certainly periods of, of boredom, but then you get that call and you’ve, you’ve got to go. And obviously there’s danger involved sometimes. I think that mixture is, is very addictive to a lot of people. I was, and is…to me.
HEFFNER: You know, I, I couldn’t help but think again, in this car…call after call…armed suspect climbing up a fire escape, robbery in process, etc….couldn’t help but wonder…what does it do…psychologically speaking, to live in and with that kind of tension day after day and how long can a human being take it?
KELLY: I think it takes a toll. We do have a fair amount of movement in the New York City Police Department where officers have other options than just uniform patrol. But it, it can take a toll and it’s something that perhaps we’re not as cognizant of as we should be as an, as an institution. Maybe taking people off the “front lines”, so to speak, for a period of time is good both for the officers and for the, the community that they, that they serve. But there are, there are problems…there’s probably increased domestic problems in, in policing in general. We certainly have our share of people who become alcoholics, we have a suicide problem, in policing…partly because of the availability of weapons…everyone gets a little bit depressed and sometimes officers have that, that…the availability of guns, and it makes it easier. So it is a pressure filled job and it’s not, as I say, for everyone.
HEFFNER: Do you think that looking at our society and what it has become that we’re going to be able, that you’re going to be able, as Commissioner, to draw upon a larger pool, or upon…must you draw upon a smaller pool of persons who can take that kind of tension, who have the personal integrity, and the personal psychological and emotional strength? Where are we heading?
KELLY: Well, we hope to draw on a larger pool. I think it’s important that police agencies reflect, as best they can, the communities that they serve…in New York City as far as ethnic and gender make-up we certainly don’t do that. We have a department in a majority/minority city that’s about 11 ½% Black and about 14% Hispanic. And, I think we’re moving in the right direction. We just had a major recruiting drive in which we got more applicants than ever before in our history for a police officer examination. And had the highest percentage of Blacks and Latinos applying for the examination. We are attempting to increase the pool of people…not necessarily the jobs themselves, but increase the, the pool applying for the Department to make it, in a sense, more, more competitive. We, we’d like to be able to finely hone the, the requirements to, to be a police officer, to be service oriented. That sort of thing. I don’t know if you can really test for that at this juncture. Some of the things like that, that we are, we are looking at through some outside consultants.
HEFFNER: You say “tests”…what kind of qualities?
KELLY: Well, right now we are testing in the standard Civil Service format…four hour examination, answering 120 questions basically a memory type of questions, showing pictures…that sort of thing. We’d like to be able to test, of course, for, for sensitivity. We’d like to be able to test for common sense if there was such a test because that’s the ingredient that cops need more than, more than anything else. But we’re not, we’re not there yet. A lot of the tests that, that are out there throughout the country are the results of lawsuits that have, have made them in, in people’s eyes more job-related, more nuts and “bolts-y”, if you will. And I’m not certain that’s, that’s the way to go. We are limited by Civil Service laws and rules, and it’s difficult for the qualities, the sensitivity, the common sense that we think officers need.
HEFFNER: Some years ago, one of your predecessors, Bob McGuire, sat at this table and Bob was much given to bemoaning our fate…what, what we were becoming in a, in a hedonistic society. In a society whose values seem to be much, much less impressive than in earlier years. To the degree that that’s true, a larger or broader question…can we anticipate that we will have a larger, rather than a smaller, or a smaller rather than a larger pool of emotionally prepared persons, persons psychologically and emotionally prepared to stand the gaff of being a police person?
KELLY: I don’t know. We have probably the most comprehensive psychological testing program of any police agency in the country. We give an all day battery of psychological examinations, written examination…each applicant is interviewed by a psychologist, answers questions that come from the test that are taken the day before. That system is far from perfect. Obviously we, we can get people who, who are not stable, and in an organization of, soon to be 31,000 police officers, we, we certainly surface people who are not…who are not stable…who have gone through all of the testing, who we’ve given a gun to, graduated from the Police Academy and put on patrol after a couple of years, we see that clearly that person should not have been a police officer. We, we have a lot of tests and a lot of, hopefully, safety nets that, that catch people like that. But yet still people get through the net. So the system is far from perfect. And I don’t think there is an easy answer. I don’t know if, if the pool of stable people is increasing or decreasing.
HEFFNER: What do your consultants tell you about that? Your psychiatric, psychological, sociological consultants.
KELLY: (Laughter) They don’t…they don’t give a clear answer. As many consultants don’t give clear answers. But it’s, it’s an issue that police are struggling throughout the, the country. You give an individual an awful lot of power when you give them a badge and a gun. They are government to, to a lot of people. And they literally have the power of life and death…something that we, management, have to be very much concerned about. We’re hiring here in New York City, for instance, we will be hiring 4,000 police officers between now and February of 1994. That’s a major lift for us to do administratively as far as testing, as far as making certain we get the right people. This, this concerns me. We’re going to do the absolutely best job that we can do. But it’s, it’s an issue that we have to look at carefully.
HEFFNER: I suppose you must be the victim, as every other institution in our society is, of the critical…critical mass media…or of critical mass media, to be more grammatical. I know you take it…by “take it”, I mean I know you have to take it because it’s going to be aimed…you have a darn good press, though. Are there those who are being driven out of police work, as there are those who are being driven out of politics by the incursions of the, of the sensational press?
KELLY: I think so. This will be hard to quantify, but the pressure here in New York City, for instance, we have four daily newspapers that are in competition with each other. People say that only three can survive, that generates an awful lot of competition, awful lot of focus on the police, because we make news, we generate new every day. And with that comes a lot of other spin off things…spin off stories to television stations, radio stations, an awful lot of focus on the department. And there’s some stories that are positive, and a lot, a lot that are negative. And officers feel that, that pressure. And the higher you go in rank, I think the, the more you feel it. The more exposure you have. And it’s a…it’s just like a lot of other businesses these days…the world has changed in the 1990s. There’s a lot more competition, a lot more pressure that’s out there. I think people may opt to either retire early, or not come into this, this business.
HEFFNER: Now that’s interesting…either not come into the business or retire early. Is that what, is that what’s happening…retirement early…early retirement? Around the country, not just in New York?
KELLY: Yeah, I think so. You’ll see people just get out of the business…people who are still vibrant, say and even in their, in their mid-forties, because most police agencies will allow you to retire after 20 or 25 years, or stay on. But you’ll see people…executives that I see retiring, getting out of the business…a lot of the major chiefs in, in the country have left in the last two years. And their, their life span in those jobs is pretty short.
HEFFNER: I won’t…
KELLY: I’m going to do something else…
HEFFNER: (Laughter) You know when you, when you spoke before the FBI Symposium in February ’93…talking about toward…your title was “Toward a New Intolerance: Gun Control and Community Policing”. It…you, you spoke at the beginning of the program about freedom…this is a time when we value our personal freedoms increasingly, yet you make the point so well here that since crime and the incursions of crime have limited our personal freedoms so, we’re not free to do what we want, we’re not free to walk in the streets…
HEFFNER: …is there a sense, on your part, that there is shift in this, that we’re really moving ahead, or can we just assume more of the same?
KELLY: I have a sense that things are changing…a lot of things are cyclical in this country, and you think, ah, it’s a kind of laissez faire acceptance that a lot of people have of quality of life violations, for instance. It is changing, people are organizing, community groups are getting together. We in government feel that, feel that pressure. And I think it’s a good thing. I mean I don’t necessarily like to receive a lot of complaints, but that’s what I’m there for. And I think people are kind of marshalling these types of, of feelings, putting pressure on government. And not that government is the answer. Unfortunately government is the answer to very few of these problems, I think. It is a value question to, to a large extent. I think the values in this country have, have changed. But again, it’s cyclical, you can feel a kind of shifting in the, in the other, other direction. So I, I see…generally, I see good things. Generally, optimistic. I think here in New York City there’s no question about it, that major crimes have decreased for the last two years. I think there are some quality of life issues out there that, that government finds very difficult to, to address, and then people sometimes mix with crime…if you see homeless people on the street, if you see panhandlers or people begging, stopping your car to wash your windshield, those sorts of things people equate with crime. They’re not really crime. I think these are issues that we ultimately are going to have to try to address in a more effective way. But I do see major crime reducing, of course. It’s gone down in, in the country…not as significantly as it has in New York City, but I…for the last two years we’ve had major decreased in crime.
HEFFNER: And to what do you attribute that?
KELLY: Well, it’s complex. Why crime goes up and why crime goes down is, is never easy to explain. Of course we want to take some credit…police…we, we take some shots when it goes up.
HEFFNER: Fair enough.
KELLY: So…but here in New York we’ve increased our uniform force by over 3,000 officers in a three year period of time, and we’re going up another 3,000, as I said…actually 4,000 we’ll hire between now and February of, of 1994. So I think that increased uniform presence has something to do with it. I think there also has been a…at least a plateauing of, and maybe even a falling off of the use of, of drugs. And I think that impacts somewhat. We are embarking on community policing, which is a pro-active reaching out, a partnership between the police and the community here in New York. That’s happening in other cities as well. And I think that working together has been able to enable communities to formulate strategies with they police to address certain types of crime. But it, it…there’s never one answer as to why crime goes up or crime goes down.
HEFFNER: Question of guns. Gun control, that’s something you’re hot under the collar about, right?
KELLY: I think it’s a major, major problem for this country. Something that the national administration has to come to, to grips with. We have all of the gun control laws that we can usefully use in New York City and New York State. We confiscated almost 20,000 guns last year in New York…about 95% of them are from out of state. You go to other states that are not too far away, maybe a half day or a day’s bus trip…walk in an purchase a gun and bring it up to New York and sell it for a fair amount of money…or purchase several guns, and do that. It is, it is a problem that, that is not going to go away. That I think is only going to get worse unless we have a comprehensive, coherent national policy which considers registration, national registration of guns. You can’t but a car anywhere in this country, without registering it, without letting government know that you’ve purchased a car…it goes into a computerized system. If you purchase a car in Oregon or Washington, we in New York State and New York City can determine who owns that car by hitting into a data base. That’s not the case with guns…hand guns…the only purpose of a hand gun is to kill another human being, and yet you can buy then with impunity in, in a lot of states in this country.
HEFFNER: Now, you say that…others might say the only purpose of a hand gun, or half the purpose of a hand gun is to protect yourself against someone who wants to kill you. What’s your response?
KELLY: Well, I, I think, I think public policy should be to, to at least identify those people who, who have those guns and register those guns. And we can debate that issue as to whether or not government should be, you know, taking guns away from people or what. But at, at the very least we should know who owns those guns, and there should be some sort of threshold requirement for you to, to purchase a hand gun throughout this, this country.
HEFFNER: Commissioner, am I correct in assuming that your fellow commissioners in other cities, and Chiefs of the police feel…basically feel the same way about gun control?
KELLY: Yeah. I think there’s been a shift in the last 10 or 15 years as far as major police chiefs are concerned. I think there was a divergence of opinion a few years ago. But now my sense is that most of the major city chiefs are very pro gun control because they see what’s happening on the streets of their city.
HEFFNER: Then the next question is how in the world do we continue as a people not to have gun control?
KELLY: Well it is, it is a national issue, and it has to be addressed by the national administration.
HEFFNER: No, no I understand that. I’m asking the question of how in the world could a supposedly sensible people, whether in Washington or in state capitals, city councils, not understand what you, as a Top Cop, see so clearly. That you’ve got to register, at least…guns.
KELLY: Well, you know, there’s, there’s a rationalization process that, that is out there that says “Well, the Second Amendment allows you to, to bear arms and we need it to defend our, ourselves, and only…you know, guns don‘t kill people…people do”. These types of sloganeering…you have the, you have the NRA, that’s a very powerful and a very effective lobbying organization. So…I mean I see the issue clearly, but I can understand why other people don’t.
HEFFNER: What’s happening along those lines?
KELLY: My sense is that there is, a national movement building up now for, for stricter gun control, certainly the Brady Bill is, is important but it’s only, only a first step, but you feel the ground swell of support. I do, anyway, for the Brady Bill. There’s a lot of things that are being talked about that haven’t been talked about before, the control of ammunition, the limiting of the size of clips, as far as the manufacturing of, of clips for hand guns, the concern…there is talk about national registration…so there’s a lot of discussion now that, that we haven’t had in, in recent times. And I’m hopeful that something will come of it because it is a, it is right up there in my mind with drugs as being a, a national embarrassment.
HEFFNER: Commissioner Kelly, we have two minutes left. I didn’t want to make this program about contemporary issues, per se. I’m a New Yorker, I live here. Terrorism. What do you have to say to those of us who live in large urban areas…most of us in this country do?
KELLY: Well, we live in large urban areas in a free and open society, and it’s very difficult to totally protect yourself against terrorist acts. I think here in New York City, we’re fortunate. We do have, I think a very effective investigative organization that is the New York City Police Department and the FBI working together in a Joint Terrorist Taskforce. We’ve had that for 13 years. I think we have excellent emergency response capabilities, police, fire, emergency medical service. We’ve embarked on a fairly comprehensive training program for private security people as far as protecting their institutions from possible terrorist acts. But the bottom line is the world has changed after the World Trade Center bombing. We had this, this kind of veneer of invincibility…that it wasn’t going to happen here. Well, it has happened here. And I think we saw just recently there was an attempt to have it happened again. We’ve got to be on our guard. What does that mean? It means that you have to look at your own individual situation if you’re a business person, or even a private individual. I think you have to be just a little more aware of the possibility of it happening. But having said that, you can’t, you know, close down operations. We have to continue as a, as a society. And I think it’s one of those risks that, that you take. And, and…it’s…the benefits of living in this country, in this city far outweigh those that cost.
HEFFNER: A positive note on which to end the program. And thank you so much, Commissioner Raymond Kelly, for joining me today.
KELLY: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.