The Cops and Race and Gangs—and Murder

William Bratton, then chief of the LAPD, and Raymond Kelly, then commissioner of the NYPD, at a public hearing in New York City, September 2008
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times/Redux
William Bratton, then chief of the LAPD, and Raymond Kelly, then commissioner of the NYPD, at a public hearing in New York City, September 2008

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

Crime stories, Raymond Chandler tells us, demand heroes. True crime stories, it appears, are no different. Vigilance, Blue, and Ghettoside, three overlapping accounts of modern-day urban crime and our efforts to curb it, all celebrate men who, by their authors’ lights, have the vision, skills, moral fortitude, and commitment to take on the nation’s most intractable crime problems. Each book is in its own way a success story—of police prevailing over criminals, as mysteries are solved, crime rates drop, order replaces disorder, and justice is restored. But the fact that the author and hero of one of the books, Vigilance, is one and the same—former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly—provides an early warning sign of the pitfalls of this heroic idiom. It is all too easy, when focusing on asserted champions, to lose sight of the bigger picture. Responding to urban crime requires far more than heroic police officers.


Vigilance is more press release than genuine memoir. If Ray Kelly has had introspective moments, he’s not inclined to share them. Instead, he tirelessly trumpets his many self-proclaimed successes, mostly from his tenure as NYPD commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2002 to 2013. Objectivity is not his strong suit. He boasts, for example, that his department disrupted sixteen terrorist plots. Many of the plots seem far-fetched, but Kelly treats them all as if, without his interventions, they would have led to another September 11. They include the hare-brained notion of a truck driver, Iyman Faris, that he might bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch, and several plots hatched by dubious FBI informants who entrapped young men of limited mental capacity into engaging in fake terrorist attacks. In one such instance, the FBI’s informant, among many other blandishments, offered an unemployed man $250,000 to bomb two synagogues. At sentencing, the presiding judge stated:

The essence of what occurred here is that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism, came upon a man both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable…

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