Questions for Ray Kelly

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'We can't rely solely on the federal government to help us': Kelly

Ray Kelly was New York Police Commissioner during the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and took over the top job again in February last year. One of his first acts was to set up a dedicated counterterror unit, partly because he felt the city could not rely on the federal government for adequate protection. Time's New York correspondent Amanda Bower spoke with him shortly before the war in Iraq started:

You launched Operation Atlas in response to the threat of war with Iraq. What does it involve?

We have established checkpoints throughout the city in addition to bridges and tunnels. We are providing additional protection to subways and ferries, adding bomb sniffing dogs, radiation sensors and the National Guard to subway cars and platforms. Radiation sensors will also be deployed city wide at street level. The financial district is under strengthened 24-hour protection. Our high visibility deployments will include a stepped-up presence of heavily armed Hercules teams as well as Cobra teams. These are specially trained teams in chemical, biological and radiological events. These and other HAZMAT teams will be in place citywide. We are assigning officers to sensitive locations throughout the city, including houses of worship. An aggressive towing program is underway to remove vehicles that are parked illegally in front of foreign missions, synagogues and other potential targets.

Is New York the number-one U.S target for terrorists?

I think New York and Washington are at the top of the list. All indications are that that's the case, nothing has come forward to change the collective opinion of the intelligence community

How do you protect soft targets, like apartment buildings and schools?

What you do as much as you can is enlist the citizenry of the city. We've asked them to be more vigilant, to look at things through the prism of Sept. 11. There's been an awful lot of thoughtful calls. We've asked the real estate community to look for people renting an apartment for cash, anyone who might be tampering with the ventilation.

Isn't it a contradiction to be told to be vigilant, but live our lives normally?

Our world has changed as a result of Sept. 11. You don't want to minimize the threat, but you don't want to blow it out of proportion. Intelligence information is by definition murky, it's not wrapped with a nice bow and presented to us. So we give people the bottom line of what we have. I don't see it as a contradiction so much, I see it as a changed world. If you don't go about your life, then you're significantly altering the American way of life without ever having a shot fired here.

Every straphanger in the country is nervous of an underground attack. What's being done to protect the subway?

There are some aspects of the transit system that make an attack difficult, because the system itself was made with a kind of flushing capacity, so any kind of toxic material is difficult to disperse widely other than in a confined and controlled place like a subway car. So we pay attention to the subway cars themselves. We have significantly increased the numbers of officers that go into cars, searching cars unannounced. We protect our tunnels under the water, with police officers assigned there 24 hours a day.

That can't be a fun assignment.

No it is not. It's a tough job, it's boring, but they have to be alert. I go down there, and they're very much upbeat about it. They know it's a very important job.

You're a veteran of many federal authorities, but when you took over the NYPD you set up the city's own counterterror unit. Why?

We can't rely solely on the federal government to help us. They simply don't have the resources and they haven't provided any resources to us, certainly not where I think it's required. We'll take all the help we can get, but we're almost 18 months after the attack and we still have not received virtually anything from the federal government. There's no federal resources here, there's no federal military base here. If something happens, God forbid, the police department and fire department are by definition first responders here, and we're going to be on our own for a significant period of time.

You've got 1,000 officers reassigned, officers speaking Urdu, Pashto, Farsi. How did you get it done?

We have 50,000 employees, 37,000 uniformed officers. So we identified people who claimed to be able to speak these languages. It's the luck of being in the melting pot. We have assigned people to Washington, Toronto, Interpol, Israel.

How do you pay for it?

With great difficulty. We are spending at least $100 million on counterterrorism functions. It comes right from our budget. We're taking people who would be otherwise deployed in fighting conventional crime in this city. You're not doing crime prevention work, you're not doing investigations that perhaps you would want to do in a more thorough fashion.

How many NYPD officers are trained in biochemical preparedness?

I think we've trained about 14,000 officers, and almost everybody has gotten some taste of it. But it's not anywhere near the level I'd like it to be.

Any jealousy from smaller police departments that don't have any equipment or training?

We're 2.5 times bigger than any other department. We cover 19 square miles, the United Nations, we're the financial capital of the world, the communications capital. There's a lot of things in New York that make it hard for anyone to envy the money we get.

Do they come to learn from you?

Chicago and other cities have been here to see what we're doing. We want to have closer communication with these other big cities. And we see a natural relationship with London, Paris and New York, and we're building a relationship. The head of the Metropolitan Police in London was here. We perhaps have more in common with those cities than we have with some cities in America.

If you could walk the beat in any city in the US, what would you choose?

I think the most exciting place to work is Times Square. If you want to be a cop, it's not for everybody, no question about it, but there's no place like New York City. I get out and ride around now when I can, just go on assignments. I stop a radio car and get in and ride around, so they can't really be prepared. I like first-hand, unvarnished feedback.

What does Ray Kelly do when he manages to leave the office?

I like music, a lot of different types of music. I went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame show not that long ago, and Talking Heads came back together. I ran out and bought their albums.

Ever thought about running for office?

It has no appeal to me. I'd much rather be in an appointed, executive position. I don't think I have the demeanor to be a politician. I'm used to making decisions and to a certain extent being in charge

You're used to people doing what you tell them?

[Laughs] I guess so. Consensus building doesn't necessarily fit with my experience.