In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Ray Kelly looked out from the roof of his Lower Manhattan apartment building into the smoldering abyss that had once been the World Trade Center.
"When it hit, I did feel a sense of helplessness," remembered Kelly. "It is a sight I won't forget."
After walking up 16 flights of stairs to the apartment that he and his wife, Veronica, wouldn't be able to live in for at least two months, Kelly filled up a suitcase with some of his tailored suits, Charvet ties and dress shirts, as well as underwear and socks, and became another victim made homeless by the attack.
For weeks, the man who was once one of the most important law enforcement officials in the nation and a 30-year-veteran of the NYPD became a vagabond, living with friends or in hotel rooms. Kelly told his wife, who was abroad on a trip, to stay away as long as she could.
Four months later, Kelly found himself reappointed the city's 41st police commissioner by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a job he said he didn't campaign for but which allowed him to shed the feeling of powerlessness.
Kelly has held the job for 12 years, which, when combined with his two years under Mayor David Dinkins, makes him the longest serving leader in NYPD history.
In just about two weeks, Kelly, 72, will vacate the job he has defined with a massive counterterrorism strategy and historic crime declines in the post-9/11 era. In a wide-ranging interview Thursday, Kelly reflected on the job he has done, the criticism he has received, and the challenges the city will face under a new mayor, Bill de Blasio and new NYPD Commissioner William Bratton.
Points to his results
"I did the best job I could do," Kelly said. "The results are there for all to see. Will people be critical of some things? Yeah. That is life in New York. That is life in most high-profile public sector jobs."
When Kelly took over in early 2002, he said, the NYPD was mired in outdated technology, still relying on Whiteout fluid and carbon paper. He brought in more than 20,000 computers and launched an aggressive state-of-the-art updating of technology, embracing big data with the coveted domain awareness system that collects the department's vast files and surveillance cameras into one easily accessed network.
Technology is still making leaps. On Thursday, Kelly said the NYPD is using special infrared devices the Department of Defense developed to spot suicide bombers to help detect weapons hidden under clothing. NYPD divers will be using underwater sonar vision systems and cops will soon be able to take photographs through fog, said Kelly, a former Marine colonel and Vietnam War veteran.
"We did things, I believe, that were reasonable and helped to protect the city," said Kelly, referring to his 1,000-person counterterrorism branch, and the beefing up of police quick-reaction forces.
Kelly's counterterrorism effort drew criticism because of surveillance and intelligence-gathering in Muslim communities, which spawned a federal lawsuit. Kelly said the criticism was prompted by petty law enforcement turf wars and leaks to reporters.
"Things were leaked out of here, blown out of proportion, subject to half-truths and distortions," said Kelly, who maintained that everything the NYPD did was legal under a federal court ruling known as the Handschu consent decree, a document the media initially ignored, he said.
But the Muslim surveillance is just one of a few things that Donna Lieberman, a top official with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said has made Kelly and the police unpopular in minority communities
"Yes, Kelly has a lot of popular support, but it is racially lopsided and his policies are extremely unpopular," Lieberman said Friday.
"I think people will remember him as a consummate professional but also somebody who refused to make course corrections, policy corrections . . . to end the narrative that policing is a 'Tale of Two Cities,' " she said picking up a de Blasio campaign theme.
Kelly scoffs at such suggestions and said the polls show wide support. Recent ones show Kelly getting job approval ratings of 62 percent to 75 percent, including majorities among whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Criticism has also been leveled about the NYPD use of stop and frisk. That issue is tied up in federal court where an appeals panel has suspended a lower-court ruling that had said police engaged in indirect racial profiling.
Stop and frisk was an issue for some Democratic candidates for mayor but in Kelly's view that was a "false narrative" that he said obscures a key truth: NYPD policies have saved more than 9,200 lives by cutting the murder rate, something benefiting the ethnic communities.
Kelly said statistics are important in crime fighting to measure progress of his 34,800 officers. However, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch has been critical of Kelly and said the drive for better numbers turned into a "quota" system, something Kelly has denied.
When he leaves One Police Plaza for the last time the evening of Dec. 31, Kelly will have the same concerns shared by others about another possible terrorist attack and the city sliding back to higher crime rates. "Nobody wants the city to slip back 25 or 30 years ago when we had record murders," he said.
Whatever happens, Kelly won't be fading away. He hopes to take his first vacation with Veronica in 12 years. He said a book deal might be in the offing. There are rumors he might take a top security job at a major financial firm such as Morgan Stanley or JPMorgan Chase. "I will, hopefully, be gainfully employed," Kelly quipped.