Bernard B. Kerik

Top Cop

VTR Date: December 8, 2000

Guest: Kerik, Bernard B.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Bernard B. Kerik
Title: Top Cop
VTR: 12/8/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, where a number of times in the past quarter century, and they have been good times and bad, I’ve had the honor of talking here at this table with New York City’s “Top Cop”. Today Bernard Kerik is the 40th Police Commissioner of the City of New York. And even as the department celebrates his arrival, the New York Times recently reports, “Murders in New York City have been cut by nearly two-thirds since their peak in 1990. And violent crime over all has fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s. Non-violent crimes, like auto theft have also shrunk by huge margins. Thousands of people who fled what they considered a dangerous and dirty city”, the Times continues, “have been replaced by families who regard the city as safe and re-vitalized. Together these crime fighting achievements and their role in the turnaround of the city amount to a story of sensational success for the New York City Police Department and for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani”.

And it seems to me that now it must be quite a time for you, Commissioner, to come in an try to continue what it is the Times describes here.

KERIK: Well, it’s going to be a challenge. As I’ve said before, our success of the past makes our success in the future much more difficult than it’s been. Crime, as you know, has dropped almost 60% across the board. You know, in 1988 when I was walking a foot post on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue if someone told me that crime would drop in the City by 50% I would have laughed and said it was impossible. The Mayor has achieved far greater, a 60% reduction in crime, almost a 70% reduction in homicide, and to continue those reductions is going to be extremely difficult. But I think as history has shown us, the New York City Police Department is a department of great accomplishment and I think we’re going to be able to continue on a success.

HEFFNER: Does your background in the department itself point you in any particular directions now?

KERIK: I don’t know if it necessarily points me in particular directions, but it gives me some advantage that I think that perhaps other Commissioners didn’t have because I, I understand the Police Department. I know it. I know the members that are working there, that have been there for the last fifteen years. And I also … I get to look at things from a cop’s perspective. You know, sometimes, I guess just when you’re … like when you’re a child and your mother and father tells you what to do. At some point in time you think, “Well, if you were in my shoes you wouldn’t look at it that way. And if I were in your shoes I wouldn’t do it that way, I’d do it differently”. But when you’re a cop, when you have a Chief or an Inspector or a Precinct Commander talking about policing the shifts, sometimes … just sometimes, the policemen have a better insight because they’re in the field. They have better ideas. They have different ideas. Being a cop just fifteen years ago in this agency gives me a lot of insight and a lot of knowledge about the good police practices and patrol practices and patrol practices, that I think now, as Commissioner, I can delegate to the bosses, to the managers, the Precinct Commanders, Borough Commanders to make sure that they’re doing what they should be doing to get the cops motivated and inspired to do a job.

HEFFNER: It doesn’t have to be a matter of criticism of what has gone before, not at all, but you must have an orientation of your own. What is it?

KERIK: Well, I have my own management style, and I do things strictly, I think, by accountability. Precinct Commanders and Borough Commanders have got to be held accountable to make sure that they do the job … there are three primary focuses of what I’d like to do in the Police Department right now. One, continue on our success, continue reducing crime. Two, enhance the morale within the Police Department , to let the cops know that the communities, the business world, the people that live in this city really do support them in what they’re trying to do. And also, the third thing is to build community relations and enhance on those relationships that we’ve, we’ve had in the past. Build on those to create a greater partnership between the communities and the Police Department. So those are really sort of my focus right now.

HEFFNER: How could this City possibly show cops, generally, better their appreciation than to make this financial difference between what New York City cops make and what the police in surrounding areas make. Eliminate that difference.

KERIK: Well, sometimes it’s hard to do that. In reality, it’s easier said than done. And one of the primary reasons is because New York City’s very different, we police in New York City very differently than perhaps Nassau County, Suffolk County, suburban areas in New Jersey, cops make $100,000 a year, but you only have one cop in a car. Here we have two cops in a car for safety purposes. And I don’t think the PBA, nor anyone else, including myself or any of my bosses would, would endorse having one man patrols in this city. I wouldn’t … I just wouldn’t have it. For safety reasons, primarily. So, policing in New York City is very different. But, you know what, Dick, it’s not always about money. And I’ve been to a number of precincts, a number of borough commands and I’ve talked to the cops out there in the field, and it’s always not about money. Most of it is about the way the officers are treated by their superiors. The way they’re treated by the community, whether they get in the resources they need to do the job. Whether their precinct commands are, are maintained so that they have adequate facilities, locker rooms, bathrooms, gymnasiums to work out in. These are some of the things that they’re talking about with regard to what would enhance their morale, and those are some of the keys issues that I’m going to key in on.

HEFFNER: Well, I know as a Vice Chairman of the New York City Police Foundation that we’ve tried to focus on ways to be of help to the Police Department, but I’ve been appalled by some of the things that I’ve seen and the way in which you and your men have to function in terms of the antiquity …

KERIK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … in terms of the ancient nature of many of the buildings that house New York’s Finest.

KERIK: Well, I think you have to look at each area specifically, but in buildings maintenance, for example, this is one thing I will be focusing on. Strategies to … strategic planning really to put plans together and make sure these buildings are really up-graded. And then maintained. And sometimes that’s not really a continuing focus. I was extremely successful in the Department of Correction at changing the infrastructure of the buildings, at making sure that work orders were prepared for buildings maintenance. And then, the key, and I’ve said this before, is holding the managers accountable to make sure that people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And in this circumstance I’m in the process right now of looking at a program to hold the Precinct Commanders accountable for their individual precincts with regard to buildings maintenance. So, that’s something I’ll be looking at.

HEFFNER: Okay, but let … let me be frank enough to go back to the New York Times, the article that I read from begins that way, but then goes on to say, this guy is going to have a lot of problems … the Department is going to have a lot of problems in trying to keep up its records in terms of retirements, in terms of people not applying for membership and in terms of people retiring. What do we have to say about that?

KERIK: Well, we are doing a number of things with regard to recruitment. In fact we just had, we just closed out the exam, the filing date for the next exam which will have just over 12,000 almost 13,000 people taking the next test. That’s about three or four thousand people higher than the last exam we had in the Police Department. So in the recruitment area, we did increase the numbers …

HEFFNER: From this last one, but what about …

KERIK: From the last one.

HEFFNER: … a couple previous?

KERIK: Well, a couple previous … there were more people taking the exam, but … people have to realize a lot of this is economy driven. If you look throughout history and you look at the economy, what you see in civil service, across the board, not only in the Police Department, but historically, as the economy flourishes and rises, civil service seems to drop. When the economy levels aren’t that good, civil service becomes an opportunity, a career opportunity for many. And, I think that has a lot to do with what’s going on in the NYPD in the recruitment area. And its … honestly, it’s not only in the New York City Police Department. The FBI’s having problems recruiting. Other Police Department’s major and suburban departments throughout the country are having problems recruiting and I think a lot of this is economy driven.

HEFFNER: Okay. Economy-driven. Neither you nor I are going to hope for a recession that will a make a job at the NYPD …

KERIK: No, absolutely not.

HEFFNER: …more attractive.

KERIK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What can we do then? Look, I’m, I’m pressing you on this and I feel strange about it because I know that you don’t have the checkbook, in your hands.

KERIK: Right.

HEFFNER: But why as a city, aren’t we willing to pay the Police what will keep them here.

KERIK: You know what, Dick, I think we’re willing to pay the police officers what we can to keep them here.

HEFFNER: Excuse me, what do you mean “what we can”?

KERIK: Well, see, a lot of people don’t realize behind the scenes in the negotiations, you know the PBA and the Police unions, they are asking for certain numbers. Some of those numbers are virtually impossible to this City. The City has about a $32 million, $33 billion dollar budget. $33 billion dollars. And we have parity across the board when it comes to labor negotiations. So, if the Police Department is negotiating a contract and they come up with certain percentages, for example, six and a half, seven percent … a seven percent raise across the board, for example. Well, that’s going to be the guidelines of parity for the other municipal agencies throughout the City. If the Mayor, for example, gave the Police Department a 10% raise. While for the Police Department it would be a certain cost, but with the parity levels across the board throughout the City, it would be about an $8 billion “nut” for the City of New York. That’s about a quarter of City’s entire budget. It would physically bankrupt the City, it’s impossible. So, when you’re looking at these negotiations and you’re looking at that honest and true labor negotiations with the Police Department, I think the union and the City has to understand, there’s some sort of acceptability in what we can and what we can’t physically do. And I think that’s what they’re looking at right now.

HEFFNER: How large is the Department now?

KERIK: Right now we have a total of 55,000 people …

HEFFNER: Uniformed officers?

KERIK: 41,000 uniformed officers? We’re at the highest ranks in the uniformed ranks in the history of the agency. And about 14,000 – 15,000 civilians.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re going to stay there?

KERIK: I don’t know if we’re going to stay there. We’re going to stay close to there. We’re going to do what we can to stay close to those numbers. Yes.

HEFFNER: Do we need to, to keep the crime statistics what they have become?

KERIK: From what we see right now, we’d like the continuation in, in crime reduction. I think I would recommend to the Mayor that we should stay where we’re at or try to stay where we’re at.

HEFFNER: Now, what’s your prophecy about what’s going to happen to crime statistics. There have been those who have said that the drop was at least to some extent a demographic matter. The drop in crime statistics. Do you buy or not buy that?

KERIK: Naw, I’ve heard … everyone under the sun has a different, a different idea of what’s really responsible for crime reduction, crime reduction in New York City, including El Nino. The fact of the matter is if you look across the country, New York City leads the country, leads the entire country in crime reduction, in some areas by two and three times. New York City has succeeded in crime reduction as a result of the leadership of the Mayor and as a result of a program called “Comstat” in which we, we really measure and target crime based on analysis and historically in policing and in correction in jails and prisons, we’ve always looked at crime … quarterly, bi-annually, annually, and someone, in headquarters, for example a Commissioner or a First Dep. or a Chief, they’d pick up a bi-annual report and they’d say, “Wow”. In the last six months crime has spiked five or 10 percent in a certain area, and robberies, homicides, murders … we’ve got to do something, we have to figure out an initiative to reduce those numbers. Well, that no longer happens in New York City. Today at 6:00 a.m. in the morning when I get in my car, I know what happened in the city yesterday because on a daily basis those statistics are gathered, they’re put into a data-base in the operations center and we can focus and direct and deploy our troops based on where the crime is, what kind of crime it is, why it’s happening. And as a result you can be extremely, extremely pro-active. And that’s one of the real reasons for crime reduction and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s going to continue.

HEFFNER: Pro-active rather than simply reactive.

KERIK: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Okay, let me talk in the time remaining about two things you talked about. The community … community relations as far as the NYPD is concerned and the support of our larger community for the work that the police do.

KERIK: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: What’s your own feeling about community-police relations.

KERIK: Well, I honestly … I’m pretty surprised by what I have found in the three and a half months that I’ve been here. You know, looking at it from an outsider and being the Correction Commissioner I was sort of an outsider to what was going on between the communities and the Police Department. But I’ve got to say the perception that I had, when I took over the Police Department was that there was a real lot of friction between the communities and the Police Department. That’s not the case. By no means is that the case. I have attended, I don’t even know how many Community Council meetings. I have met with, I can’t even … I don’t even know the numbers of clergy. I’ve been to churches. I’ve held my own meetings with every Precinct Council President and Vice President . I’ve had a number of interactions with community leaders throughout the city. And the first thing that they say … the absolute first thing is they want more cops. They need more cops in their precincts. They want more visibility. They want their own foot cops. These are things that are constantly being said, and you’re not going to get that response from people if they have this negative interaction with the Police Department. I’ve come to realize we have tremendous, tremendous Precinct Commanders out there that are working extremely hard, and they’re going to work harder to build relationships with those communities. You have, you have people that have the access to the media and the press, that can stand up there and talk about the Police Department and bash the Police Department, but you’ve got to pay attention to the real community leaders in these communities. And if you pay attention to them, I think they believe that the interaction and the community relations are a lot better than people believe.

HEFFNER: Foot cops. What’s your response when they ask for more cops, more foot cops?

KERIK: Well, my response has been and it’s going to be “we going to put the cops where they need to be”. And I’ve been pretty successful over the last few months in demonstrating this to people that have come to me and said, “we need foot cops on certain posts”. Okay. I have physically gone out and said “Okay, give me the locations where you absolutely believe foot cops would help reduce crime”. And they’ve given me certain areas, certain grids, certain blocks. And our Comstat program has given us the ability to see where police deployment is really needed. And when you look at … I’d say 90% of the time when you look at where they want the cops, there is no crime. They want the visibility. They want that self-assurance, but the bottom line is in those areas, there is no crime. But there is crime somewhere else, where they don’t focus and concentrate on, or they might not be aware of. So you’ve got to … you’ve gotta kinda let them know. We’re going to put the cops where they’re absolutely needed and we have the ability to know that through the Comstat process.

HEFFNER: My bet is that you are uniquely capable of showing them the facts.

KERIK: Well, I … you know my police time … my management skills over the last few years, as the Correction Commissioner and the First Deputy Commissioner in Correction, I became very analytical. And the Mayor, through the Comstat process has really built on Comstat and it has given us the ability to demonstrate to people what they need … what the need should be for policing. And I can, I think I’m making a point, I’m getting the point across.

HEFFNER: Well, help me understand then. Foot cops …

KERIK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: I come from that prejudice that believes if you see a cop, you see a cop walking nearby, because I’m an old, old New Yorker and I remember seeing cops on the beat …

KERIK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What is the comparative effectiveness of the cop in a car, the cop on his feet.

KERIK: Well, there’s two different issues. One … the, the cop on a foot post, if the, if the person is actually needed … and I, I come from, you know, I guess I can probably talk on that better than most because I had a foot post on 42nd between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, and at the time that was … is the Midtown South Precinct. They used to have a big sign in the center of the door when you walked in that Precinct that says, “You have just entered the busiest precinct in the entire world”. And it was a busy, busy house. And a foot cop on that post absolutely was a crime deterrent. And back in those days, ‘86, ‘87, ‘88 when I had that post, there was a lot of crime on 42nd Street. Today it’s sort of looks like Disneyland.

HEFFNER: it is Disneyland.

KERIK: It is … just about … it is Disneyland. And it’s changed completely. But, back then you needed foot cops, you needed deterrents, you needed people to respond immediately and you needed people with real, immediate access. A lot of times patrol cars in Times Square couldn’t get to the problem. I responded to bank robberies and make bank robbery arrests, on foot. It’s not the norm. But in Times Square, that’s what you need. So, sometimes you need the foot guys, sometimes you need the cars. But foot cops can be a deterrent where the crime is. But we’re not going to put cops out there just for visuals, when there is no crime.

HEFFNER: And the general attitude towards the police on the part of the larger community?

KERIK: I see, I see it’s a lot better than I anticipated. I see it’s pretty good. Do people have problems in, in and do they feel negativity toward the police in some communities? Yes. I think it’s a lot of press and media driven. And, but I also believe people have to look at the big picture. We’ve had a few incidents over the last two or three years … year and a half to two years, probably, the created a lot of negativity. But you have to realize two things: one, don’t broadband the whole Police Department for one or two incidents. And then, you have to sit back and look at those one or two incidents and see, really, really what happened. Be truthful to yourself and truthful in your perceptions, I say. And, and I think for the people that do that, they’ll have a better understanding of what the Police Department does.

HEFFNER: You talk about troubles that are perhaps media driven.

KERIK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

KERIK: Well, we had the Amadou Diallo shooting, the Dorismond shooting and the Abner Louima event, incident. A lot of people compared the three incidents as one. Abner Louima, the people that assaulted Abner Louima were, they were convicted of a crime. Those people should go to jail. They have gone to jail. Case closed. The other two shootings … one those people went before a Grand Jury. You know, there’s a process. A lot of people say to me, “Well, how would you handle those incidents? Would you handle them differently?”. I live by the Constitution of the United States … we all do … there is a process by which we handle these events. There is an investigation. There’s not only an investigation done by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs, but there’s also an investigation done by the Grand Jury and the District Attorneys from the appropriate counties. They go before a Grand Jury, if they’re indicted, they go to trial, if they go to trial and they’re convicted, I would assume they go to jail. In both of those cases they were either acquitted or “No-billed” before a Grand Jury and people have to really look at that and truthfully take that into consideration when they’re, you know, bashing the Police Department.

HEFFNER: Commissioner, we have just about a minute and a, a half left. Let me ask you. What do you feel is the impact upon NYPD or upon Police Community relations, however you want to put it, of younger and younger cops.

KERIK: I think the younger cops are doing fine. I think they need training. We have the longest in-service and recruitment training; the longest recruitment training out of any municipal Police Department in the entire country. We’ve just implemented a street-wise training program which deals with certain cultures and certain ethnic backgrounds that the Police Department never had before. I think those cops are going to get, and are getting the best training they could ever have. And I think that’s going to be a benefit to the communities.

HEFFNER: Are we going to see that?

KERIK: Yes. I think so.

HEFFNER: Are you adding to it, at all?

KERIK: We’re adding to it now in the area of different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds, in addition to training for first line supervisors such as Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains within … with regard to community affairs, community relations and cultural sensitivity. And that’s something we’ve never done before, so that’s stuff that is just starting now.

HEFFNER: Commissioner Kerik, I’m so glad you’re the Top Cop. Thank you for joining me today.

KERIK: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.