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From Plato to Clausewitz

July 20, 2009

There is no shortage of egos when it comes to commanding tens of thousands as police commissioner of New York City.

And there is no shortage of sycophants trumpeting commissioners’ accomplishments.

When William Bratton served as P.C., it was difficult to imagine anyone with a higher opinion of Bratton than Bratton.

But such a person existed. He was George Kelling, a Northeastern University professor who began his 1995 article in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal with this modest comparison:

“From Plato in Athens to Police Commissioner Bratton in New York, experts on public order have ceaselessly worried over one key problem: how to control the police who maintain that order.”

Current police commissioner Ray Kelly holds a similarly exalted opinion of himself.

While he lacks a booster like Kelling — unless, of course, you include his $180,000-a-year spokesman Paul Browne — he has a cheering section at the New York Times.

Referring to Kelly’s crime-fighting strategies amidst the force’s reduced size, The Times, with no irony or humor, wrote last week: “Mr. Kelly has compared himself and his ethos to that of a 19th century military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, who advised massing forces at certain important points, instead of deploying scarce personnel thinly along an entire enemy line.”

The Times added: “Every day, he [Kelly] reviews charts that map crime and quality-of-life conditions, ranging from graffiti to murder. He looks at electronic screens that show daily staffing levels in all 76 precincts and in the subway and housing commands…

“By using these tools — what Mr. Kelly describes as ‘dashboards’— he makes decisions about how when and where to deploy officers.”

Kelly has also devised a tactic that sounds as though he may have watched too many Steven Spielberg movies, specifically the science fiction tale, “Minority Report,” where police see the future and arrest killers before they strike.

The Times, again with no humor, described Kelly’s crystal balling as “predictive policing, trying to use crime statistics and other information to forecast where crime may pop up next.”

So our modern-day Clausewitz also fancies himself a clairvoyant. Or maybe’s he’s just exercising common sense — like realizing that when school lets out in the afternoon, lots of rowdy teenagers will be flooding the streets.

Such puffery resulted from followed Kelly’s decision to allow The Times to observe a recent meeting he held of his top chiefs and deputy commissioners.

But the reporter, apparently without realizing it, inadvertently touched on what many in law enforcement feel is Kelly’s failing as a commander: his distrust of all uniformed subordinates, hence his inability to delegate authority, including the most minor of matters.

Even Chief of Patrol Robert Giannelli, Kelly’s longtime friend and former radio partner, cannot make a decision on his own. Kelly recently reprimanded him after Giannelli assigned six to 10 desk officers to foot patrol without first clearing it with Kelly.

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Then there is Kelly’s most egregious micro-managing: his insistence that every transfer and promotion requires his approval. Although The Times noted this, it mistakenly implied that Kelly’s actions stemmed from the department’s reduced manpower.

At issue at the meeting The Times attended was whether a specialized unit to fight crime in the 52nd precinct in the Bronx would be transferred to another precinct.

Ordinarily, the precinct or borough commander would make that decision. But as the Times noted approvingly, “The debate was eventually settled by Mr. Kelly.”

Just what does the NYPD do when Commissioner Kelly is absent and a far-flung terrorist act occurs, such as the bombing of the Marriott and nearby Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia?

The department was quick to tell the Daily News that an NYPD lieutenant “assigned as an overseas liaison in Indonesia was inside the Marriott within six hours of the attack and was briefed by Indonesian officials.”

But, without Kelly, who would assure New Yorkers that all was well?

In this case, the assignment fell to Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence David Cohen. As seen on WNBC-TV, Cohen blubbered incoherently for a few seconds until, mercifully, the station cut short his remarks.

Kelly recently attended the annual barbecue of Reggie Ward’s New York Law Enforcement Foundation, one of the small organizations of cop buffs that clings to the department as barnacles do to a boat.

Ward founded the group in 1995, and apparently operates it as a family business out of his apartment at 480 Park Avenue, which is the foundation’s address. For a time his brother Cecil served as treasurer, although the person who answered the foundation’s phone said he no longer plays a role.

Just a few years ago, Kelly bailed out at the last minute of The Finest’s annual foundation dinner at the St. Regis, costing them its $40,000 down payment.

Kelly felt that the dinner, with its $50,000 “commissioner’s table” as the group’s invitations put it, gave the appearance that access to him could be bought.

He then distanced the department from other small foundations, forcing them to attend a meeting with First Deputy George Grasso, who warned them not to expect their past perks.

So why did Kelly choose to attend Reggie’s New York Law Enforcement Foundation barbecue?

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