At 7:30 A.M. a bulletproof, armor-protected SUV rolls up to the door of a lower Manhattan high-rise. Two Goliath-size detectives jump out and whisk the city’s top cop to One Police Plaza.
Later that hot summer day, a stern-faced Raymond Kelly, New York City’s longest-serving police commissioner, appears before photographers, proudly displaying a MAC-10 handgun, one of 254 weapons seized in the biggest gun bust in city history.
The day before, he had appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he was grilled like an overdone steak on his controversial stop-and-frisk policy. In a headline-grabbing blow, a federal judge had just deemed the policy unconstitutional, finding that police resorted to “indirect racial profiling.” A week later the City Council would also condemn the policy, and gleeful mayoral hopefuls vowed not to rehire Kelly.
But the former marine, who at 72 still lifts weights daily, coolly addresses the firestorm, denying charges of discrimination and pointing to the indisputable fact that murders are down almost 30 percent from last year’s all-time low. At the beginning of the year, his approval rating among New Yorkers was a stratospheric 75 percent.
It’s a 16-hour daily marathon for the superstar chief, who oversees the $4.6 billion budget of the nation’s largest police force: 50,000 people, including 1,000 counterterrorism agents who are part of a post-9/11 initiative that has helped keep New York City safe from another attack.
To decompress, Kelly smoothly manages the social requirements of the position, whether at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a film festival with Robert De Niro, dinner with Cardinal Timothy Dolan or J. Lo’s birthday barbecue.
Not bad for the youngest of five siblings raised in a modest apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side by his father, James, a milkman, and his mother, Elizabeth, a dressing-room attendant at Macy’s. After a youthful stint as a police cadet and time in Vietnam as a marine, Kelly became a beat cop in 1966 and began his meteoric rise, serving in 25 different commands while also earning a master’s degree from Harvard, as well as two law degrees. He was appointed police commissioner twice: first in 1992, serving for two years, and then in 2002, serving for the past 12. At press time, rumors swirled that he might go national, replacing Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security.
Kelly is chivalrous when it comes to his wife, Veronica; the couple recently marked their 50th wedding anniversary. Their close-knit family includes sons Greg, the comedic co-host of Fox’s Good Day New York, and James, a managing director at JPMorgan Chase.
Author Glenn Plaskin, who recently interviewed Tony Robbins for Playboy, met up with Kelly in his office bunker, over a dinner at the Four Seasons and at Kelly’s high-rise apartment with panoramic views of the Statue of Liberty.
Plaskin reports: “I was led by two detectives to Kelly’s inner sanctum, where I was surrounded by framed photos of him with presidents and mayors, personal pictures as a bushy-haired police cadet and as a Marine Corps colonel. Then into the room strode the man: ‘Here, have some cookies,’ he said lightheartedly. ‘It’s my birthday.’ Kelly’s number one trait is a Zen-like calm, an unruffled confidence—he is anything but battle-weary. He’s laser focused and speaks sotto voce, revealing as much in his facial expressions as in his words.
“Regularly checking his BlackBerry, which continually vibrated with crime updates, Kelly sat behind a carved desk used by his hero, New York City police commissioner turned president Teddy Roosevelt. And that’s where we began.”
I had it restored. It looks better now than when he had it.
Why is Teddy Roosevelt your favorite president?
He was a dynamo, though he’d been sickly as a child with asthma. He built himself up, became a boxer, went to Harvard. He was a hunter and an expert on naval history. He had a photographic memory and read a book a day. He did everything with tremendous drive.
You’ve often quoted from his “Man in the Arena” speech: “It is not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Yes. It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines, not responsible for anything good that happens in the world. It means that if you’re in the arena, you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions. You have to take some chances.
And you’re the guy in the arena.
With a face that has been marred by some dust.
When you’re slammed in the press, does that linger into the night, or can you detach from it?
I am able to put it to the side. And a lot of it I just don’t read. I think that’s a function of practice. When I had this job 20 years ago, I was more sensitive, more cognizant of complaints and concerned about public opinion. I’ve learned to do what I think is the right thing. That lessens the impact of criticism. You get used to a pressurized environment and expect it every day.
When you go to bed at night, do you sleep soundly?
[Laughs] No, I don’t take any of that stuff. I might wake up in the middle of the night, and sometimes it’s harder to get back to sleep, but I sleep well.
When a negative TV report comes on about you, do you watch it?
Generally speaking, I have pretty good press. I don’t think I’ve been unfairly treated at all. But political people in a mayoral race will take shots at you. It doesn’t really bother me.
Even those blistering attacks on stop-and-frisk during the primary season this summer?
The Republican candidates weren’t attacking the policy. It was the Democrats. The reality is the Democratic primary is controlled by extreme elements of the party. The candidates know that, so they have to go to extremes themselves.
What’s your view of failed mayoral candidate Bill Thompson? He said, “Our kids should never be targeted for the color of their skin. I’ll end racial profiling and stop-and-frisk and get illegal guns off the street.”
How? Nobody asked him how.
And Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio said, “Millions of innocent New Yorkers—overwhelmingly men of color—have been illegally stopped.” What were they talking about?
They were talking about election-year politics. They were pandering to get votes. Whoever wins the primary always attempts to run back to the center and disavow the impact of what they’ve said.
Do you think they were just full of shit?
When they used you as a political football in the televised debates, how did you react?
I resented it. I think I’ve had a long, distinguished career in public service. It just goes to show you what some politicians will do. They’ll say or do anything to get elected. I know all these people. They all claimed to be friends of mine up until their mayoral campaigns. They’d call me on the phone and ask for information or come over here and sit in this chair to get briefed.
Are you talking about Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, who was also a candidate?
I’m talking about all of them.
But they turned against you.
It seems that way.
Would you have wanted to work for any of these people?
I don’t want to discuss it.
We’ll swing back to your plans later, but for now, does criticism over stop-and-frisk disturb you?
Look, I can understand the fascination with it, but it’s just one tool in a toolbox that has many other crime-fighting measures in it. What about our Real Time Crime Center, the first centralized technology giving us instant data to stop emerging crime? Or Operation Crew Cut, a successful effort to curtail gang activity, or Operation Impact, a unit that deploys officers to high-risk neighborhoods when there’s a spike in crime? I’d add that over the course of 12 years the NYPD became the most racially diverse department in the nation. We expanded our ranks with officers from 106 countries. We now have more black, Asian and Hispanic officers than white.
Are you getting the attention you think you deserve for that?
Good news is not news. Bad news sells. Confrontation sells. And that’s what the press is always looking for. Look, I’m not bragging, but I have the highest job-approval rating of any public official in the city. And I’ve had it consistently. The approval rating for the police department is 70 percent. This notion that stop-and-frisk has torn the community apart is false.
Many mayoral candidates agreed with the federal judge that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional and that it must be overhauled.
Notice what they never talk about—the lives being saved. During the past 11 years we had 7,363 fewer murders than we had in the 11 years before. Last year the homicide rate was the lowest in at least 50 years. And this year we’re running about 30 percent below that. You haven’t heard one candidate talk about that or what they would do to keep this record going forward. I know we’re saving lives, and I know we’re doing the right thing.
Then why, according to an exit poll of Democrats taken on primary day in September, did 59 percent deem the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy excessive?
What you have is government by advocacy group. Among the people, there’s no groundswell against stop-and-frisk—certainly not in minority communities. I’m there all the time. They want more proactive policing.
You’re basically talking about parents, right?
Parents, yes, because they are being victimized. They are the losers in this if their son or daughter is killed. The lives saved are largely those of young men of color.
Then why did a federal judge deem the policy unconstitutional?
That’s a question for her. In the court case, the plaintiffs’ expert looked at 4.4 million stops and found only six percent were “unjustified.” In the court case, the judge looked at 19 stops and found 10 of them were constitutional.
So she made her ruling on——
The flimsiest of evidence. And the decision deserves to be appealed.
So what are the criteria for a police officer to stop someone on the street?
You can be stopped if a police officer reasonably suspects a crime is about to be committed, is being committed or has been committed. Every law enforcement agency does it. It’s essential to policing.
So you didn’t invent it.
No. There is a 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, that validates this procedure. Virtually all states use some variation of it.
Since 86 percent of the 5 million people stopped in the past 11 years were black or Latino, how is this not racial profiling?
What criteria do you use? The federal judge says you look at the census data of a particular neighborhood and at overall crime to determine whether racial profiling is going on. That makes no sense, because half your stops would be women. In New York, 70 to 75 percent of the descriptions of perpetrators of violent crime are black men; the vast majority of the remainder is Latino. And 97 percent of shooting victims are black or Latino. Our stops are 53 percent black and roughly 35 percent Hispanic.
On Nightline last spring you stated that African Americans are actually being “understopped.” Do you stand by that?
I don’t like the term understopped because it seems pejorative. I would say our stops comport to the population of the perpetrators of violent crime as described by the victims themselves.
So you’re not overdoing it?
Can you understand how some young men of color who have been stopped for no reason may hate your guts?
I don’t agree. The notion of hatred has been stirred up by a small number of advocacy groups that have done a great job at marketing this concept. You might read something snarky on Twitter, but I could take you right now to 125th Street in Harlem and young men will stop me for my picture and give me a very favorable and friendly greeting. They understand that we’re saving lives in their community, that they’re the ones at risk.
To be clear, what are the officers not allowed to do?
They’re not allowed to stop someone based on their race. They’re not allowed to stop someone based on less than reasonable suspicion.
But you focus your efforts in black and Latino neighborhoods.
Well, that’s where the crime is. That’s where the shootings are. That’s where the violence is. And that’s where we put our resources.
Put yourself in the shoes of a 17-year-old black teenager dressed in a hoodie and baggy pants, earplugs in, listening to music, a can of Coke in his pocket. You’re on your way home and haven’t done anything wrong. Out of the blue, cops stop you. Is that fair?
It depends on why he’s being stopped. Was there a description on the radio of somebody committing a crime who looked like that young man? Was somebody fleeing a particular area? Is there gang activity there? Or did they think his can of Coke was a weapon? Stopping him is a legitimate law enforcement function.
But he won’t be stopped just because he’s black or because of what he’s wearing?
No, absolutely not. You need reasonable suspicion.
Are you saying it has never happened that someone was stopped for no reason?
I can’t say it has never happened. We have hundreds of thousands of stops a year. But generally stops happen for a legitimate reason, with reasonable suspicion.
And the criteria for a frisk?
Frisks happen in about half the stops and only when the officer can articulate a fear for his or her safety, and it is a limited pat-down, not a search.
What’s the limit on the pat-down?
They don’t go into private areas.
Are there any times you agree the police have been overzealous?
Hey, we’re human beings. We have 50,000 employees. We have 7,000 pieces of rolling stock. We have 275 buildings. We have 23 million citizen contacts a year. There are 12 million calls to 911. We effect about 400,000 arrests a year and give out 500,000 summonses. One year we had 680,000 stops. The numbers are big. Can we make mistakes? Yeah. No other agency is scrutinized like the police. Everything we do is in a goldfish bowl. We are not the most popular people in society. We do things like use deadly force; we’re the bearers of bad news. We’re not firefighters, who are viewed as heroic, helping people, with people loving them back. The police have a much more complex and demanding job.
The New York Times called the City Council’s decision to increase stop-and-frisk oversight “a stinging personal defeat for Mayor Bloomberg.” What do you call it?
I call it a defeat for the citizens of New York City. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that if you stop or curtail stop-and-frisk, or if cops are reluctant to do it, violent crimes are going to go up.
Has this whole subject given you agita?
You don’t feel aggravated?
Not at all. This is my business.
President Obama gave an impromptu speech last July that focused on the realities of growing up black in America, how Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago. Some view stop-and-frisk as an institutional version of what Obama was describing.
I know this is a sensitive issue to the African American community. I would point out that the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman encounter was between two private citizens. It didn’t have to do with the stop-and-frisk issue directly. But I realize it was an event that people rallied around. They believe the judicial system isn’t fair, and in many people’s minds the Trayvon Martin case was the manifestation of this unfairness.
What was New York like back in 2002, when your current term began?
The Bloomberg administration came in just three and a half months after 9/11, and there was all sorts of gloom and doom in the press. It wasn’t a question of if New York was going to be attacked again by terrorists, it was when. It wasn’t a question of if crime was going to go up, it was by how much. It was a pessimistic time. Expecting more mayhem to break out, people were leaving the city. The traffic in Times Square was so light I could drive from there to downtown in 12 minutes. No traffic. It was as if New York had been evacuated.
A semi–ghost town.
Yes. New York City was the number one target in America—and it still is. I knew we had to create our own counterterrorism operation, since the federal government alone couldn’t protect us. So we brought in high-level officials from the FBI, CIA and Marines and created a cadre of first-class intelligence analysts. We deploy more than 1,000 officers to counterterrorism duties every day, and we have NYPD officers assigned in 11 foreign cities.
Wouldn’t the FBI, CIA and NSA have been enough to rely on?
No. We’ve been attacked here twice and the federal government did not protect the city, though it may have had good intentions. We know now that one of the reasons the terrorists weren’t intercepted on 9/11 was due to a lack of cooperation—and communication—between the FBI and the CIA.
How many attacks have been averted in 12 years?
Sixteen—including the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York Stock Exchange, Times Square, Herald Square, the subway system and JFK airport.
You say you sleep well, but what one fear could keep you up at night?
Obviously the major concern, though it’s the least probable one, with the greatest consequences, would be nuclear detonation or a dirty bomb with radiological material.
Are there any preventive measures against it?
Yes. We have a radiation-detection plan that includes radiation equipment on police officers, on helicopters and on our boats.
If a plane flying above us had a nuclear bomb onboard, could you detect it?
No, I wouldn’t say that. We’re looking for nuclear devices coming in by land or by ship.
On a visceral level, you must hate these terrorists.
On one level, yes, but protecting the city is my job, which doesn’t translate into hatred. This is war, and in most wars, professional soldiers don’t hate the enemy. Hatred can blind you in ways that mar your judgment.
If the city should come under attack, could you manage the emergency response from your SUV?
Well, yes, we hope so. We have a lot of phones, a fax machine, satellite television, bullet-resistant vests.
Is it bomb-resistant?
Both the body of the car and the doors are armored.
Is it true that if New York City were under attack, the NYPD could, as you mentioned in a 60 Minutes interview, actually shoot down a plane?
One of our concerns is that a crop duster could take off from a field in New Jersey, fly over Manhattan and distribute a material such as anthrax. What could we do? Would we wait for a fighter jet to be marshaled? No. So we procured semiautomatic 50-caliber rifles, the most powerful rifle you can get. Now we have the capability to shoot down a small, slow-moving plane from our helicopters.
But could you stop a jet that is on the attack?
No, not a jet that is going 550 miles an hour.
Looking back at that day when two planes flew into the Twin Towers, did you ever think those buildings could fall the way they did?
No, never. I remember when I was police commissioner the first time, sitting in the basement of the World Trade Center on the night of February 26, 1993. Terrorists had detonated a van bomb there that afternoon. An engineer was telling me, “This building could never come down.” That bombing should have been a huge wake-up call for the country, and it wasn’t.
It was dismissed in some quarters as an act of amateurs. I’m not certain who you put the ultimate blame on, but the reality was we didn’t learn many lessons from it.
On the morning of 9/11, you were working in private industry, at Bear Stearns. What do you remember?
I was in the executive dining room when somebody came in and told me a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. I went up to the highest floor of a nearby building and stood there watching the whole thing. When I saw the first tower crumble, I thought back to what that engineer told me. A few weeks later, my wife, Veronica, and I stood on the roof of our apartment building right across the street from ground zero. Veronica was crying, and I was stunned by the enormity of the devastation. A large part of our neighborhood was literally gone. Total devastation. The magazine stand we went to across the street vanished. Standing up there that day was a moment of clarity for me.
So after Bloomberg was elected, you accepted the offer to return as police commissioner.
I realized this was war, and I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. I wanted to get back into the game.
Republican Pete King, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, recently said, “Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11 because it has mutated and spread.” Do you agree?
I don’t disagree. We know that core Al Qaeda, headquartered in tribal areas of Pakistan, has been degraded significantly as a result of drone strikes. But surrogates of the franchise have sprung up in the Arabian Peninsula, in northern Africa—Libya, Tunisia—and in Iraq and Syria.
What you’re saying seems to cast doubt on President Obama’s claims that Al Qaeda has been “decimated” and is “on the path to defeat,” statements he has made 32 times since the attack in Benghazi.
We believe we’re going to be confronting Al Qaeda for a long time to come. It seems to be able to regroup, rebound and spread its reach to other continents.
Then why is Obama giving this more optimistic viewpoint?
The threat is still very much with us, strong, if not stronger than it was in 2001. Al Qaeda is robust.
How safe is New York City today from another attack?
New York is safer than it has been—and it’s getting safer. But it’s never safe. As the financial and communications capital of the world, this is where terrorists want to make a statement, where they get the most bang for the buck.
Let’s talk about surveillance cameras.
We now have about 7,000 cameras citywide—4,000 of them positioned in lower Manhattan. Some are “smart” cameras, capable of video analytics. Let’s say you want to track a suspect who was wearing a yellow shirt at two P.M. three weeks ago. The cameras are color, shape and movement-sensitive, so we can feed that information into a computer and the picture comes up.
Ever since the passage of the Patriot Act, privacy advocates have been concerned about spying on law-abiding citizens.
These privacy advocates are hard to find. A Quinnipiac University poll taken last spring found that more than 80 percent of New Yorkers want more cameras in public areas.
In fact, you’ve said the people who complain about it are a “relatively small number of folks, because the genie is out of the bottle.” What did you mean?
If you go into any department store these days, your picture is probably taken 30 times. In London there are 500,000 cameras in public spaces. You have no expectation of privacy in public spaces.
But you can understand why people would be appalled that their phone conversations are being examined.
They’re not being examined. They’re being warehoused. The potential to get into the calls requires going to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to get authority to look into them. I think Edward Snowden was talking about violations of that requirement, something the NSA has to address.
After Snowden revealed top-secret mass surveillance programs in the U.S., why did you criticize the NSA’s secrecy over phone-records collection?
I don’t think it should ever have been made secret. I think the existence of the program should have been made known, because people in this post-9/11 world would generally accept the fact that calls are being gathered and, as I said, put to the side. If they had been assured calls were accessible only as a result of judicial direction, they would be less concerned.
Do you think Snowden is a traitor or a patriot?
He’s a traitor and a violator of the law. He’s not a whistle-blower, because he didn’t go to Congress or to any of his bosses. He did this on his own and hurt, some say irreparably, the defenses of this country. And you can’t operate a government like that. You need some confidentiality to operate in today’s world.
But do you see the danger of all this surveillance turning us into an Orwellian culture, a police state where every-thing is being monitored?
Well, I think it’s something that should have limits.
Do I think we should have cameras on every block? No. It would help us in terms of investigations, but I understand the sensitivity to doing it.
On the subject of surveillance, you faced criticism in 2011 when the Associated Press began a Pulitzer Prize–winning series about the NYPD’s expansive spy program that used closed-circuit cameras and undercover agents to keep close tabs on mosques. What’s the deal with these so-called mosque crawlers?
I never heard that expression.
You’ve never heard it?
Nobody ever used it inside the police department. Those AP writers received a lot of leaks from disgruntled people in the NYPD who had retired or didn’t get promoted. The overarching sin we’re guilty of is having the nerve to move into the counterterrorism area that the federal government wanted to have a monopoly on, irrespective of the fact that we had almost 3,000 people killed here, that we’ve had 16 plots against us. Our temerity in trying to better protect New Yorkers was greatly resisted by some in the federal government.
Do you see anything wrong with undercover agents infiltrating religious houses of worship?
We don’t investigate mosques, but we do follow leads into the mosques. We can’t have sanctuaries. We can’t say that because you are Muslim or Catholic or Buddhist or Jewish you have a sanctuary from being investigated. The AP said we categorized mosques as terrorist enterprises. That is simply not the case. We don’t investigate buildings. We investigate people.
You understand why a law-abiding Muslim praying in a mosque would be offended by the presence of undercover agents.
Yes, we understand that, sure. We just met with our Muslim advisory committee and went through a lot of these issues. But this is the world in which we live. We are at risk from terrorism. We have to do what we reasonably can to protect the city, and we cannot rely on the federal government alone to protect us.
With all this doom and gloom, when you’re stressed out or feeling down, what do you do?
I make martinis. [Laughs] No, I exercise, lift weights, do cardio. That helps.
The worse the news, the more weights on the bar?
Right. More pain, more pain.
Are you religious at all?
So you don’t pray or——
Only if my life is on the line. There are no atheists in a foxhole, you know.
Other decompression techniques?
I read a lot, mostly nonfiction political books. Just finished This Town, about Washington, and Colin Powell’s It Worked for Me. I watch a limited amount of TV—The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, PBS News-Hour. And I’ll watch Homeland.
What about the perks of being police commissioner, like having your own helicopter?
No. We have helicopters here, but they’re not my own, and I use them infrequently. If there’s an emergency and I’m out of the city, I have to get back quickly via helicopter, but it doesn’t happen much.
So what are the perks?
You’re invited to certain social events and you represent the city. That comes with the territory.
Or just the fun of going to J. Lo’s birthday party.
If you’re invited. I never invite myself, never.
Is there anyone you haven’t met but would like to?
Lady Gaga. No, I’m kidding. Nelson Mandela. He was in New York in 1990. I was supposed to meet him at Gracie Mansion but just missed him. It was a disappointment. I was intrigued by someone who had spent 27 years in jail, then came back to lead a country. And with all that adversity, he was not bitter.
Others who impressed you?
Well, I met Pope Benedict at a special meeting here at the NYPD. It wasn’t that we had an in-depth conversation, but there’s just an aura about him that was impressive. I felt I was in the presence of a superperson. I’ve always been impressed with President Clinton—one of the smartest people I ever met and worked with. He has the ability to break down the most complex issues into digestible concepts. Hillary Clinton as well. She can speak on virtually any subject.
Do you think she would make a good president?
I think she’d make a good anything.
What about Bush 43?
He was always friendly and funny. I was once in a car with him here in New York, and he said, “Kelly, you ever notice when I’m driving down the block, everybody’s giving me the finger?” I said, “They’re just saying you’re number one, Mr. President.”
What are your thoughts about Mayor Bloomberg?
A very intelligent person, and funny.
Some might view him as a remote, “business” kind of person, not sensing his warmth or humor.
Oh, he has tremendous compassion. I’ve gone with him to hospitals many times to visit police officers who have been wounded, or to visit with the families of officers who have been killed. I see a very sensitive and warm person, very touched in those situations.
What’s your view on his ban of big-gulp sodas?
Look, he’s trying to save lives. He’s trying to fight obesity. He’s very concerned about that, and it’s in keeping with his efforts to improve people’s quality of life.
You can’t drink the big-slurp sodas if you’re going to try to fit into your suit from five years ago, right?
What’s the deal with your custom-made suits and Charvet ties?
I think it’s only natural to want to look good. I enjoy good clothes, so 18 years ago I moved to having custom-made suits. They last longer. They fit you better. In my opinion, I think men don’t spend enough on clothes.
How much does one of those suits cost?
It changes. They keep going up.
Does that look enhance your position of authority?
I’ve never really thought of it that way, but it probably does. If you look good you can convey a feeling of more authority.
Growing up, did you ever dream you’d be in this position of power, with access to the president, attending movie-star parties?
No. I came from modest surroundings. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have anything in excess. As a milkman, my father used a horse and a wagon. After milk regulations changed and milk was sold in stores, he lost his job. During the war, he found work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Then his older brother got him a job in the Internal Revenue Service. My mother started working part-time in Macy’s as a dressing-room checker when I was six. I stayed with a woman in the building after I came home from school. I was the youngest of five.
Ah, the baby.
[Laughs] Yes. The nicest and the best——
The babies get special treatment.
Yes. My siblings all took care of me, and I shared a room with my older brothers and never had my own room until I was 19 or 20.
Any fighting in the house?
Oh, sure. There’s always squabbling when you have five kids, but there was a 14-year gap between me and my oldest brother. As I was becoming aware of the world, all three brothers went into the Marine Corps, one after the other.
Did you believe you’d wind up a marine as well?
Yes, I knew it. I used to go through all their gear and read the manuals. Part of it was playing marine as a boy, which was much more prevalent than it is now.
In high school were you popular with girls?
There were no girls! I went to a Catholic boys school. I think I probably developed late as far as that was concerned.
At what age did you go on your first date?
Oh my God, a “date” date? Maybe 16.
And then Veronica came along.
Veronica and I have known each other since she was a little kid and I was three years older. We’d see each other on the beach. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I asked her to go out. Three years later we married, when she was 19 and I was 22. We’ve been together ever since—and we still like each other a lot.
In this age of throwaway marriages, what has kept you together for 50 years?
We’re respectful, and we don’t take each other for granted. When I see Veronica I’m excited to spend time with her. When we drive in the car, we don’t have the radio on. When we have dinner, we don’t watch TV. We talk. She’s funny, smart and has a lot of insight. She could be the CEO of any Fortune 500 company.
Over 50 years, what would you say was the biggest challenge you faced as a couple?
One bathroom in a studio apartment. [Laughs] Now with two bathrooms, it’s all peace and tranquility. I’m only kidding.
During your early years together, was seeing an ad for the police-cadet program just serendipity?
Well, maybe it was. I wasn’t too excited about being a stock boy at Macy’s. Law enforcement seemed fun and exciting, so I signed up. It was part-time work at nights, filing forms and answering nonemergency calls on the switchboard.
And right after college graduation and police training——
I left for Vietnam. Veronica was pregnant with our eldest, Jimmy. The day he was born I got an emergency notice to pick up a message from the Red Cross at battalion headquarters. You got that kind of notice only if somebody died. I assumed the worst. But the letter told me we’d had a baby boy. I didn’t see my son until he was five months old, which meant Veronica was on her own.
Yes, and obviously I was in active combat.
When you saw some of your fellow marines killed, how did it affect you?
It was not as traumatic or as jolting as I thought it would be. It was almost like “that’s what’s supposed to happen here.” I think certain life experiences sort of toughen you up.
Or crush you.
Or crush you, yes. Or make you stronger. Virtually everything I learned about leadership traits and core values, I learned in the Marine Corps. To this day, I keep a list of the traits in a little black book, 14 of them, including integrity, justice, bearing, enthusiasm, endurance—all indicators you aspire to when you’re a leader.
As a dad, what was the most challenging thing you faced?
I remember my son Greg had pneumonia when he was just four. I still have a clear picture of him in the hospital. It was around the time my mother passed away suddenly from a stroke. It was the first death in the family and very traumatic. It all seemed to come down on us. I remember feeling quite burdened at that time.
She never lived to see you become police commissioner. Would you say it’s only with the death of a parent that you feel completely——
Is that what it is? Some say that when you have a mother or a father to talk to, you’re always their child. But without them, you’re fully grown up.
You’re always trying to impress your parents regardless of how old you are. And when they’re gone, there’s nobody to impress. But I think they’d be proud. My father has been gone for 30 years, and by the time he passed away, I was a lawyer. I hope he would be impressed.
With all your accomplishments, and with a new mayor about to be inaugurated, what are you going to do next?
Well, I’ve told a lot of people I want to be a greeter at Walmart.
What are your qualifications?
[Laughs] I like people.
You could retire.
Oh no, I’m too active for that. I don’t ever see myself retiring. Not now, certainly.
But after 12 years, don’t you feel depleted?
No. I feel absolutely energized, not tired at all. I haven’t had a vacation in 12 years. I can lift as much weight as I lifted 20 years ago. I don’t feel the pressure.
With all that energy, could you see yourself accepting an appointment as police commissioner again in January?
I would find it unlikely.
You’ve had enough?
I wouldn’t put it that way. I’ve been the longest-serving police commissioner in the history of the department, but it’s time in my life to move on. I’m ready for new adventures, new challenges.
Like climbing a mountain or competing on Dancing With the Stars?
[Laughs] Yeah, that kind of stuff.
How about becoming homeland security secretary?
[Laughs] Would I have to move?
Maybe. Hours after homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano announced her resignation, Senator Charles Schumer was pushing for you to replace her. Obama said you are “very well qualified.” Do you want that job?
I’m obviously flattered by what the president and Senator Schumer said. I appreciate that.
Are you more or less optimistic, cynical, philosophical or just more tired?
No, I’m not tired. And I think I’m generally optimistic.
What’s your view on mortality?
It’s going to happen.
You don’t think about it much?
No. I don’t at all. It’s true that some people really dwell on it. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing to think about it, but I really don’t.
So what drives you?
Well, I think it’s been this job. Being in this administration, we have a lot of things to be proud of. I think it’s fair to say the police department has saved a lot of lives. That’s been our overarching goal.
As your 12 years as commissioner come to an end, you really have no regrets?
Not really. I probably should think about it, but I really haven’t. I try to sit back and make a determination of what is the right thing to do—not the easiest or most convenient thing.
Once you make up your mind, you stick with it.
Yes, I do.
Even if you get criticized.
Oh yes. And in this job you get criticized for virtually everything you do or don’t do.
Do you worry the controversy about stop-and-frisk might mar your legacy?
No, I never think of the word legacy. It doesn’t mean anything. You do the right thing, in my judgment, and things will work out. That’s what drives me. I’m not looking for legacy or history books or whatever. I know what we’ve done here has saved a significant number of lives. The burden is not on me. It’s on the politicians who made the decisions to limit what we’re doing. They’re the ones who are going to pay a price, in my judgment, if crime significantly increases.