Why It Is Easier to Sympathize With Boston’s Police Chief than New York’s

A few months after the marathon bombing, Ed Davis talks about civil liberties with more nuance than Ray Kelly.
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Elena Olivo

Just like 9/11 forever changed policing in New York, the Boston marathon bombing redefined the way Police Commissioner Ed Davis sees his city. “When you’re dealing with what we’ve been dealing with in Boston – homegrown violent extremists that have been radicalized on the Internet – a whole new system has to be thought about,” he said during an conversation with New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the Aspen Institute’s Walter Isaacson at CityLab on Tuesday.

With a terrorist attack looming in recent memory, Davis may have extra latitude with the public on how they see his department’s policing tactics. Kelly has no such luck. In the decade since he took office following 9/11, he has been hounded in the press for strategies including stop-and-frisk, expanded surveillance, and use of military-like technology. The response seems to have affected him: In a thirty-minute interview on Tuesday, he had his defenses up almost immediately, ready to punch back at any question about privacy or civil liberties.

Regardless of whether the press and the public are right in their criticisms of Kelly, it was striking how differently he and Davis approached probing questions about their tactics. When asked about how he navigates ethical challenges and privacy issues, Kelly pointed to legal concerns. “We don’t have privacy experts from the city down there [at our headquarters], but we do have attorneys that focus on this. We live in the most litigious city in the world, so we have to be very aware of potential litigation and on-going litigation, and certainly, privacy issues are among them.”

Asked a similar question, Davis talked more openly about the challenge of balancing privacy and security – and the need to get input from citizens about their concerns. “The problem with our profession is that unlike the medical profession, which has medical ethicists, we don’t have that – we operate off of a Supreme Court decision that always happens after the fact. We really need to… start a conversation among police officials to talk about what’s right and what’s wrong.” After an event like the Boston bombing, he said, “a whole new system has to be thought about and debated with the public about what the role of the local police should be in that environment.”

Kelly and Davis also had different ways of framing police accountability. Speaking specifically about stop-and-frisk, Kelly emphasized the benefits of anticipating crimes before they happen – and defended the legality of doing so. “The law says you can stop someone in a public place who you have reasonable suspicion is about to commit, is committing, or has committed a crime,” he said.

When a U.S. District Court judge ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional last month, she recommended that NYPD officers start carrying video cameras to create records of their interactions on the street. Both Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have come out against this recommendation, citing concerns about ways that footage could potentially be manipulated and misconstrued.

But Davis has embraced the power of video, even if that means his officers are held more accountable. One future possibility is “police having cameras on their eyeglasses,” he said. “When that happens – and it will – I’ll be able to take my 25 internal affairs investigators and put them back on the street, because everything will be documented.”

If Boston residents make their own recordings of the police, so be it, he said. “I sent a directive to my officers that if anyone videotapes you, it’s public information and you can’t do a thing about it.”

“Everybody is looking at this information like, ‘They’re going to use this to put me in prison,’” Davis said. But "the license plate reader connection or a video connection might clear somebody of a rape charge or a murder charge.”

Despite their different approaches on this topic, Davis certainly didn’t disagree with Kelly’s work with the NYPD – in fact, he expressed strong support for the New York police chief’s record. “I find it remarkable that Ray Kelly has been able to reduce the homicide rate by 86 percent. The conversation is around something else besides giving him credit for what’s happening,” and that’s wrong, Davis said.

Soon, both men will relinquish control over the safety of their respective cities. Davis plans to travel with his wife and take up a teaching position at Harvard. Kelly, on the other hand, may be looking for a decidedly friendlier work environment. “I’m going to be greeter at Walmart,” he joked at the end of the interview. If he doesn’t end up taking on another public role, like becoming the head of Homeland Security, it's at least a back-up plan that could also improve his image.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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