Friday, May 2, 2008

50-Shot Case May Affect Kelly’s Chances in a Mayoral Race

Published: May 2, 2008

The not guilty verdict in the Sean Bell shooting last week was welcome news to three New York City police detectives charged in the case; one even wept as a judge in Queens read the ruling. But Justice Arthur J. Cooperman’s verdict also created some new challenges in the life of their boss, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.

David Goldman for The New York Times

Raymond W. Kelly still must decide whether to discipline officers involved in an operation that ended in Sean Bell’s death.

Convictions would have caused the three officers to be fired automatically, and essentially taken the matter out of Mr. Kelly’s hands. Now, unless federal authorities take action against the detectives, Commissioner Kelly will decide the men’s fate — and not just the three men who faced trial, but also at least three of their colleagues, including the lieutenant who led their undercover mission that led to the November 2006 killing.

Whatever Mr. Kelly’s decision, it will be seen by many through a political prism. Mr. Kelly has not been successful in quelling questions of whether he aims to succeed his boss, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in City Hall. His decision on the officers will affect any political aspirations he may have. And it will come at a time when statistics showing that the police stop and frisk a proportionally higher percentage of minorities have already put pressure on Mr. Kelly’s ties to the black community.

The killing of Mr. Bell, a black man, raised racial tensions, though two of the three detectives who faced trial in the case are black.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who serves as a spokesman for the Bell family and has expressed outrage over the acquittals of the three detectives, said of Mr. Kelly, “I think that the verdict does not help him, particularly in the African-American and Latino communities, because he is the face of policing.”

Mr. Sharpton added, “How he handles it, whether the officers are terminated or disciplined in the future, and how he handles the civil disobedience we are going to start in the next couple of weeks could make it worse or could make it better.”

Andrew G. Celli Jr., a lawyer and the former chief of the civil rights bureau of the New York State attorney general’s office who studied the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices after the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, said the Bell case’s impact on Mr. Kelly may hinge on what change Mr. Kelly could produce in its aftermath.

“To some extent, the verdict is still out on what this case means for Ray Kelly because he has asked for a study to be conducted of the procedures that led to this tragedy,” Mr. Celli said. “And the question is going to be what the results of that study will be and if he acts in an aggressive manner to ensure that something like this never happens again.”

Within minutes of the verdict, Mr. Kelly stood before reporters outside the Brooklyn Public Library, where he was scheduled to testify before a House Homeland Security subcommittee on transit security. He spoke about the verdict, if only to say he would not talk about it.

“I can’t have a reaction,” he said, explaining that besides being the person who must determine what discipline is appropriate for the officers involved, the United States attorney’s office had also asked him to wait. He mentioned that the city expected calm and that the police were prepared for any contingency, and then went into the hearing.

Because Mr. Kelly was among the first officials to speak about the acquittals, images of his serious facial expression beamed back at television viewers throughout the day, even as others had more to say about the trial’s outcome.

It could be months before he announces any disciplinary action against the officers, and his options are wide-ranging.

Mr. Kelly could take a hard line with the officers, but if he disciplines them — docks them vacation days, keeps their guns from them, or fires them — he risks irking the city’s police unions and their supporters.

If he goes lightly in meting out punishment, or does not punish them at all, he may unravel the ties he has forged with those in the minority community.

Mr. Kelly already borrowed tactics from politicians’ playbooks in the weeks after the 2006 shooting outside the Club Kalua in Jamaica, Queens: He named a panel to study issues regarding undercover operations and accepted its recommendations, and he ordered an independent nonprofit group to review how officers are trained to use firearms, and how they use them.

That group, the RAND Corporation, later began a study into the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices. Mr. Kelly has been on the defensive since departmental statistics revealed big jumps in the number of street stops carried out by officers and led some critics to suggest that minorities were being unfairly singled out, a claim the police deny.

There were 1.7 million street stops from 2004 through 2007, an average of 425,000 a year, compared with 97,296 in 2002, the first year of Mr. Kelly’s second term as commissioner. The police said that while a large percentage of the street stops involve blacks, an even larger percentage of crimes involve suspects described as black by their victims. But the Bell verdict “reinforced, in the minds of some city residents, that there is not a fair system for addressing police misconduct,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a watchdog group, who said the verdict gave Mr. Kelly a chance to change that perception.

“All eyes are on him now to appropriately discipline the officers in a way that gives the public some level of confidence and solace,” Mr. Dadey said. Some who know Mr. Kelly say that as a career law enforcement official, a lawyer and a United States marine who has spent much of his adult life judging subordinates, he will not be swayed by political concerns.

“He will examine, very closely, all the circumstances and make a judgment based on that,” said former Mayor David N. Dinkins, whom Mr. Kelly served in his first stint as police commissioner. “I don’t think he is going to react from pressure from either side, meaning the police unions or those of us, like me, who say that this never, ever, should have happened; and it shouldn’t have.”

The mere mention of Sean Bell — a man killed in a hail of police bullets on his wedding day — is a reminder of the power of a badge and the questionable ways it is sometimes wielded.

That there was only minimal unrest in the aftermath of the Bell shooting was seen partially as the result of Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to engage with leaders of the black community. But Mr. Kelly did the same, though away from the public eye.

Howard J. Rubenstein, the public relations executive who is close to Mr. Kelly, said the commissioner’s responses in the shooting’s aftermath laid the groundwork for his future — whether or not, and to what degree, he might punish the officers. Mr. Kelly spoke with members of minority communities after the Bell shooting in intimate meetings, even as he was tight-lipped in public.

The field of would-be mayors has yet to take shape.

Kathryn S. Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York, said the only misstep Mr. Kelly could make — should he throw his hat into that ring — would be to appear overtly political in his actions on the officers involved in the Bell shooting.

“I think Ray Kelly has consistently come across as somebody whose positions aren’t politically motivated, so I think the worst thing he can do is veer from that track,” Ms. Wylde said.

With the Justice Department reviewing the facts in the Bell shooting, the clock may stall Mr. Kelly’s role as final arbiter. Once the verdict was issued, Mr. Kelly said he would hold up any disciplinary proceeding for the federal review.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, declined to comment on the Bell verdict, its aftermath, or what it meant for Mr. Kelly.

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