Raymond "Ray" Kelly attends Police Athletic League's 25th Annual Women of the Year Luncheon at The Plaza Hotel on December 11, 2013 in New York City. (Rob Kim--Getty Images)
Rob Kim—Getty Images
By Charlotte Alter
December 24, 2014
IDEAS
Former New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly held tenure under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2002-2013 and under Mayor David Dinkins from 1992-1994.

Correction appended, Dec. 24, 2014

TIME: What did you think of the Mayor’s speech yesterday?

KELLY: I think he had good intentions. I believe that blaming the media was not the way to go, because, number one, it doesn’t work practically speaking. And secondly, I think the message that has been put out is pretty much an accurate one. The information put out by the media has pretty much been on target.

Some have said that the anti-police rhetoric of the recent protests may have contributed to this tragedy. Do you agree?

I think there’s no way of knowing. We don’t know what motivated this individual. But I would say that the mayor’s anti-policing stance in the campaign in 2013 had been continued. Part of his campaign was to emphasize the fact that his son had to “take care” in dealing with the police. This isn’t the campaign. Obviously he continued that message and said it again in the aftermath of the grand jury in Staten Island. But whether or not this contributed, we’ll never know, because obviously the perpetrator is dead here.

You’ve mentioned Mayor de Blasio ran an “anti-policing” campaign for Mayor. How does this rhetoric affect the way the public views police officers?

It’s interesting because there was a very low voter turnout in the 2013 election, but if you look at the polls, the police department had a 70% approval rating in 2013. I myself had a 75% approval rating. The police had 56% with African American communities. I myself had 63%. So those are very high numbers. Yet he started his campaign directed at policing and policing practices. He won the election, but on election day, we had a 65% approval rating. It’s almost as if he focused on the extremes of the party, he certainly did that as far as the primary is concerned. And in New York, because you have a 6-to-1 Democratic majority, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to overall victory, absent a Michael Bloomberg with great resources.

In his remarks yesterday, the Mayor was careful to emphasize that the protests have been relatively peaceful so far, and that this was a very disturbed person who isn’t representative of the demonstrators. What would you say to that?

The demonstrations were peaceful because the police didn’t engage with the demonstrators for the most part. And they were allowed to take over bridges and roadways. So to the extent that they were allowed to do whatever they wanted to do, yeah, it was peaceful. Whether or not that’s the right thing to do—I mean, you can move people off of property without arresting them.

So do you think that the protests were only peaceful because of the police?

To a certain extent, yes. We saw the officers assaulted, injured, and I know there were a lot of reports of spitting and taunting, that sort of thing. So there certainly wasn’t overreaction on the part of the police.

What do you think of the officers who turned their back on the Mayor?

I think it was unfortunate. As city workers and police officers, they owe respect to the office of the Mayor. But I understand the emotion that was involved in it. We haven’t had anything like this happen in at least 25 years. These officers, the vast majority, were not in policing at that time. So this was a very traumatic, gut wrenching event for the department, and emotions were running high that night.

Do you agree with Pat Lynch that the officers’ blood “starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the Mayor?”

No, I think that is over the top. [Mayor de Blasio] is trying to do the job as he sees it. But I think words matter. And [de Blasio] hasn’t been as careful as he should have been with his rhetoric. The rhetoric that he used during the campaign, he’s still using when he’s trying to govern. So I think his words have gotten him into trouble, and hopefully this will be a learning experience for him. Some of his rhetoric has been careless, and some of the rhetoric that he used in the campaign he continues to use.

Much of the discussion of the fraught relationship between police and black communities has surrounded practices like stop-and-frisk. What would you say to those who paint stop-and-frisk as an example of racial profiling by the police?

There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation about stop-question-and-sometimes-frisk. We were never really able to get it out, it wasn’t properly introduced in the trial [that found the policy unconstitutional in 2013]. New York has a lower stop-rate than Philadelphia or Baltimore. The criteria recommended by the RAND Institute, is that it be the description of the perpetrators of violent crimes by victims of violent crimes. In other words, the government is left out of it. [The criteria] can’t be arrest data because that could be biased, it can’t be census data because logically, half your stops would be women, which makes no sense. The NYPD is by far the most diverse police department in the world, we have police officers born in 106 countries. Its police officer rank is majority minority. That information was not used in the trial. Also, crime data and the fact that New York last year had the lowest number of murders that we’ve had on record since at least 1961, when the National Crime Reporting system was put in place. And during the Bloomberg administration, there were 9,500 fewer murders than in the previous 12 years. So much information never made its way out concerning stop-and-frisk.

Do you think the Garner arrest was handled properly by the officers on the scene?

I think that obviously the grand jury looked at this, and I’m assuming there’s a motion to get all the information out. Admittedly the tape is disturbing. I believe that they looked at the tape frame by frame, and they made their conclusions. It’s not easy to arrest people. We’re going to have a departmental trial, so I don’t want to categorize it as being appropriate or not. It would be unfair for me to do that. And in a police department, ultimately all disciplinary decisions go through the police commissioner, so I think it would be unfair for me to comment on it.

More broadly, why do you think it is so rare for police officers to be indicted when someone unarmed is killed? It’s been a big conversation this year—how common it is for a civilian to be indicted, and how rare it is for a police officer. Why do you think it’s so difficult to indict cops?

In general terms, not talking about the specific cases, police officers are making split second decisions on what they perceive to be happening. Their perceptions could be wrong. When the business world makes mistakes, it costs money. When police officers make mistakes, it costs lives. And I think in grand juries across the country, there probably is a tendency to give police officers the benefit of the doubt, particularly when they’re reacting in their official capacity to a situation that they may not have all the information on.

Do they deserve the benefit of the doubt?

It depends on individual situations. You have to look at the fact that when they’re on duty, there’s a certain oath that they take. And it depends on individual circumstances, but I think in a general sense they probably do, given the fact that there are also civil remedies that are available to a plaintiff or a plaintiff’s family if the officer had been wrong. So there is an alternative. But police officers will probably get that benefit of the doubt in a grand jury setting.

What doesn’t this Mayor understand about the NYPD?

I don’t know what he understands or doesn’t understand, all I can tell you is what he said during his campaign. He talked about the fact that his son had to be careful interacting with [NYPD officers]. He talked about stop-question-and-frisk, but I don’t think he fully understood the nuances of it, or if he did he certainly didn’t talk about it. It’s certainly not the only tool in the toolbox, but it’s an important tool and New York City in most people’s minds, certainly in 2013, had never been safer. That feeling has certainly drifted in the last few months.

Why didn’t anything like this happen during 12 years of the Bloomberg administration?

I can only say that [during the Bloomberg administration] there was a lot of communication, there was a lot of interaction. If you look at Rev. Calvin Butts’s statement yesterday, he talks about the access that he had to me, access that he had to the mayor, saying he doesn’t have that access now. He’s a community leader, he’s an opinion former, he’s an important religious leader. And he may not always have positive things to say about the police, and I can assure you that was my interaction with him on many occasions, but I would like to think that we made ourselves available and listened to a broad spectrum of people. I would go to mosques every six weeks or so and have a town hall meeting, have people asking me questions, and I spent a lot of time in black churches. That’s what we did, and the mayor did essentially the same thing. I think the amount of interaction was important and the feeling of access was important.

It’s been such a tumultuous year for police in America, between the protests in Ferguson and what’s been happening in New York. What do you think is next?

I think we will get back to a more normal or traditional view of the police. I think certainly the Garner case and the Brown case have put a magnifying glass on police operations. Let’s assume that mistakes were made—they’re really a small number when you consider the citizen contacts that police engage in. In New York City, there are 23 million contacts a year between police and citizens. Over time people will come to realize that the work of the police and the quality of the work is generally speaking, very, very good in the United States. The policing that we do is the envy of the world, they come here to learn about how to police. Most countries are policing homogenous societies, and that’s not the case here. It’s very complex. And you have 18,000 law enforcement entities in this country, but somehow the system works pretty well. When you get a Garner case or a Michael Brown case, it distorts the view that most people have of the quality of policing that goes on in this country. And I think we will get back to understanding that over time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Correction: The original version of this interview misstated the figure cited by Kelly on the NYPD’s approval rating among African Americans in 2013. The police had a 56% approval rating in New York City’s African-American community Kelly said, citing a Quinnipiac University poll.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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