Reading Ray Kelly’s memoir, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City (Hachette, 328 pp., $28.00, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is like reviewing New York City’s crime files from the mid-1960s to today. Kelly served forty-three years with the NYPD. He provides insight into fighting crime from the perspectives of the street cop up to the commissioner.
A lifelong New Yorker, Kelly was born in Manhattan and earned bachelor and law degrees from colleges in the city. His book ties together his efforts to improve the police force with various mayors’ ambitions to make New York City safer and more livable.
During the summer following his junior year at Manhattan College, Kelly earned a second lieutenant’s commission through the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course. His three older brothers had been Marines. Soon after, he also qualified to attend the police academy. So, on graduation from college, he “put the NYPD on hold” for three years to fulfill his military obligation.
Kelly became an artillery forward observer and fire-support coordinator after completing infantry warfare training. Newly married to Veronica Clarke, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton until he shipped out aboard the USS Gunston Hall to Vietnam in 1965.
Kelly underplays his role as an artilleryman in Vietnam. Initially, he led a team on amphibious-assault landings in amtracks. “We’d take modest sniper fire,” he says. He also writes that he enjoyed working with men from all parts of America, which refined his leadership skills. “Virtually everything I know about being a leader, I learned in the Marine Corps,” he writes.
“I spent most of my tour in the valleys near Hue and Phu Bai,” Kelly says. He took part in day and night helicopter assaults and Operations Harvest Moon and New York. His details of encounters with the enemy focus on other people as the performers of extraordinary actions.
Kelly felt pride in his young men for their dedication. His primary regret is that he and his men never had a “full understanding of the endgame.” Confusion, he says, “was a constant part of the Vietnam experience. He and his men often ran around in what he calls a “fog of war.”
With the NYPD, Kelly frequently moved from one part of the city to another because of his ability to improve the efficiency of problem precincts. Promotions came rapidly. He helped remove sex businesses from Times Square and reduced the city’s homicide count after it reached rampant proportions. That hard work led to his first appointment as police commissioner in 1992.
For the next twenty years, Kelly continued to lead police organizations in NYC, the federal government, and even overseas. From 2002-13, during his second appointment as commissioner following 9/11 , he determined his mandate to be “counterterrorism, crime fighting, and community relations.”
Ray Kelly, who retired to the private sector in 2014, carried a tremendous burden. I doubt anyone could report that trying period of police work with more accuracy and authority than he does.