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Kelly's knack: public relations dexterity

July 28, 2003

For a police commissioner who prizes his image above all else, Ray Kelly was a lucky man last week.

Following the fatal shooting of City Councilman James Davis, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the public-relations hit, absolving Kelly and the NYPD of responsibility.

Bloomberg announced the fault was his and that of other politicians who'd pressed for the arrangement that allowed Davis and his killer, Othniel Askew, to bypass City Hall metal detectors. Presumably, they would have caught the gun Askew was carrying.

The mayor emphasized neither Kelly nor his department was culpable for acquiescing to the pols. As Bloomberg's Chief of Staff Peter Madonia told Newsday, "The accommodation to elected officials was my decision. The cops did the best job they could to provide security."

In his second term as commissioner, Kelly has demonstrated a dexterity in distancing himself from decisions that don't reflect well on him:

He apparently mastered the skill from his first term. See the report of Richard Girgenti, former state criminal justice coordinator, on the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which continued for three days while Kelly, as first deputy commissioner under Commissioner Lee Brown, maintained he was "out of the loop."

Recall last March's "demonstration debriefing form" that police used to question anti-war protesters about their political beliefs. When the New York Civil Liberties Union unearthed the form, Kelly insisted neither he nor Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen had known of it.

Recall also the fatal heart attack of Alberta Spruill, scared to death when police broke into her Harlem apartment during a no-knock raid based on faulty information. Although Kelly had personally promised reforms to the victims of similar raids six months before that were never instituted, he was praised after Spruill's death for accepting departmental responsibility. He disciplined a handful of cops, one of whom, Assistant Chief of Special Operations Thomas Purtell, was only marginally involved, while never acknowledging his own lapses to carry through with reforms before the Spruill incident.

After the Davis shooting, Kelly said that no cop would be disciplined for a lapse for which he as commissioner bears ultimate responsibility.

Rather, the police have been portrayed as playing no role in the decision to allow City Council members, staff and friends to avoid the metal detectors.

Here are the key questions, yet unanswered: What role, if any, did Kelly play in that decision? Was he consulted either by City Hall or his own Intelligence Division, which is responsible for security? Did he ever say to Bloomberg, "Hey, Mike, this accommodation thing is not such a hot idea."?

This question was apparently too sensitive for Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Michael O'Looney, who earns $',161 to protect Kelly's image. He refused to emerge from his office, passing a message via Insp. Michael Coan to Capt. James Klein that Kelly had "already addressed the question at a City Hall news conference." He hadn't.

Sparing Kelly from questions of responsibility appears to be a strategy that benefits both Kelly and Bloomberg.

Disparaged by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani despite his considerable accomplishments as commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins, Kelly left Bear Sterns to accept a half-million dollar pay cut to preside over a shrinking department that had achieved record crime reductions under his predecessors. He did so, say people who know him, to restore his reputation.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has tied himself to Kelly's star - and to his stardom. This allows the mayor, neither a politician nor a person with a law enforcement background, to establish his own crime-fighting bona fides, independent of Giuliani, at a time, post-9/11, when crime - terrorist or otherwise - is all-consuming. (It must be noted that the "accommodation" Bloomberg agreed to appears to be no different from that in effect under Rudy.)

Note also Kelly's remark last week that City Hall's "accommodation" is no different than that at the White House, which Kelly visited Tuesday.

The White House? That's normally the province of the politician, not the police commissioner. Especially a Republican mayor with a Republican president. So what was Kelly doing there?

Turns out he attended something called the National Infrastructure Assurance Council Advisory Group on Homeland Security, which meets periodically with the president. In our post-9/11 world, only the terrorist threat warrants a White House invitation.

Reality check. Was it just the fall of 2001 when Kelly endorsed Bloomberg's mayoral campaign, with both stating Kelly was not interested in becoming commissioner but would try to persuade Bernard Kerik to remain? Safe to say, that was campaign baloney. Kelly and Bernie don't speak. And it has nothing to do with the fact that Bernie is in Baghdad.

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© 2003 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.