By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly joined his son, Fox5 anchor Greg Kelly, in a discussion about his life and career at the National Arts Club on Tuesday, May 10.
The pair discussed Kelly’s service as the city’s longest serving police commissioner, but Greg also said that he wanted to highlight parts of his father’s story that people might not know about during the discussion, such as the fact that his father was first in his class at the police academy, receiving a commemorative weapon for the honor.
“Just to illustrate the power of Bloomingdale’s in those days, that was known as the Bloomingdale’s trophy,” Kelly said. “Bloomingdale’s had a lot of juice in those days.”
The event at the Arts Club in Gramercy Park was in promotion of Kelly’s newly released memoir, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City.
“We rehearsed nothing for this and he has a history of trying to submarine me,” Kelly joked about his relationship with his son before the conversation started.
Kelly then discussed how he began his service as commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins from 1992 to 1994, but when Rudolph Giuliani was elected, he appointed current commissioner Bill Bratton. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected in 2002, he re-appointed Kelly to the position, in which he served until 2013.
Both Kelly’s mother and father were born in New York. His father was a milkman, later working for the IRS, and his mother was a garment checker at Macy’s. Kelly said that his family eventually moved to Queens from their original home on the Upper West Side at West 91st Street and Columbus Avenue because his father was concerned about neighborhood violence.
“I was part of that with my older brothers,” he joked.
Kelly first saw an ad for the police cadet program while he was a student at Manhattan College and while he thought it might be an in-between job, he said that he soon got sucked in.
“I first worked in the communications division of the police department,” he said. “It was interesting and I became fascinated by it.”
Greg pointed out that many might not know that his father was on active duty during the Vietnam War and not long after becoming a police officer, Kelly joined the Marines and left for Vietnam.
“You were surprised to come home because there wasn’t much coverage in the newspapers of what was going on in Vietnam,” Greg said.
“It was startling to see that there wasn’t much coverage, yet you would see lots of reports of people killed,” Kelly replied. “Some weeks it would be 250 people, which was very high numbers. The casualty counts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s terrible but it’s dwarfed by the number of casualties from Vietnam.”
The former commissioner said that he went to law school because he thought of it as a potential profession after college but his career took an unexpected turn with the NYPD.
“I was a college graduate in the police department. That was rare,” he said. “I explored the possibility of leaving but I fell in love with the department and I never regretted it.”
Kelly also shared anecdotes about what police work was like in the 1970s when crime was far more rampant in the city.
“There was one instance where I was on a stakeout with a partner in a taxi cab and got out at the 92nd Street Y to use the restroom,” he said. “When I came out, there was a guy carrying a TV because he had just burglarized an apartment nearby, and he tried to get into the taxi to get away. That’s the way it was in the early 1970s.”
During his time as commissioner, Kelly said he wanted to develop a better relationship between the police department and the young immigrant community.
“We started a cricket league, and served halal food to get young people in the community involved,” he said. “We got no exposure here but it was front page news in India and Pakistan.”
During his time outside the NYPD between his two stints as commissioner, Kelly worked as Under Secretary for Enforcement at the United States Department of the Treasury, and also worked with the United Nations Mission in Haiti as Director of Police, monitoring the Haitian police. “Haiti is a fascinating place,” he said. “They believe in voodoo and some of the results are two steps forward and two steps back. There was a situation where a group believed that ‘evil spirits’ knocked a bus over when there was a crash.”
Kelly said that he felt like municipal service was easy in comparison to federal service.
“In the federal government, the elephant in the corner is Congress,” he said. “When I was there, it was a divided government. Everything was a fight, everything was a struggle. It was an era of earmarks. I enjoyed it but it was a management challenge.”
The former commissioner ended the evening on a slightly pessimistic note after a question from the audience about how severe the terrorist threat is in New York.
“The FBI has done a good job of rolling people up in the past 18 months but New York is still the number one terror target in the United States,” he said. “Terror is theater and this is the biggest stage. What happened in Belgium or Paris, could that happen here? Sure. That’s the world we live in now. I wish I had happier news but we are under that looming threat. (Law enforcement and the federal government) have to be perfect and they’re not perfect.”