During an impromptu speech Friday, President Obama spoke movingly about the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case. He personalized the tragedy, noting that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” His statements brought to mind passages from his book, The Audacity of Hope, where he talked about the slights he’s felt — from law enforcement and others — because he is Black. It also recalled his strained-then-successful sponsorship of a bill as an Illinois state senator to curb racial profiling. “Race and ethnicity,” he said at the time, “is not an indicator of criminal activity.”
In that context, Obama’s praise just days earlier for Ray Kelly — chief of New York City police and champion of profiling — have left many confused.
“Well, Ray Kelly has obviously done an extraordinary job in New York and the federal government partners a lot with New York, because obviously our concerns about terrorism oftentimes are focused on big city targets,” he said. “And I think Ray Kelly is one of the best there is. So he’s been an outstanding leader in New York.”
“Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is. But if he’s not I’d want to know about it. ‘Cause you know, obviously he’d be very well qualified for the job.”
After 12 years as the commissioner of the New York City police and with experience in the Clinton administration, Kelly may seem like a solid choice to replace Janet Napolitano as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, but Kelly’s record is problematic.
The Department of Justice is currently suing the NYPD over its “Stop-and-Frisk” policy, which Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg argue is key to the drop in crime. As part of the program, New York police have logged about 5 million stop-and-frisks. According to New York Civil Liberties Union data, more than 86 percent of the encounters have involved Black or Latino people, and nine out of 10 of those stopped have been innocent.
Similarly, Kelly has stood behind the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program, an initiative that monitored the everyday movements of Muslims throughout New York City and well beyond the department’s jurisdiction. This sweeping program collected a lot of information, but yielded no arrests; it is now at the center of at least two lawsuits
Kelly has repeatedly and emphatically defended both policies and has even said Blacks are “understopped” by police. He argued in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal that his officers are in full compliance with guidelines intended to protect individual liberties and constitutional to boot. That statement flies in the face of the tens of thousands of arrests through last year under laws that have been deemed unconstitutional.
Amid the praise of Kelly by prominent Democrats and lawmakers from New York, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) summed up why Kelly would be the wrong choice:
“He’s been a good administrator, and perhaps I could even support his potential appointment to this position in the absence of the massive aggressive stop-and-frisk program that he’s run, and the unconstitutional Muslim surveillance program, but that’s kind of like saying, I had a good year, if you don’t count the winter, spring, and fall.”
Napolitano, who is resigning as head of DHS to become president of the University of California, was often considered unfriendly to immigrant and Latino communities. Several organizations were happy to welcome her resignation and bid her farewell. But the problems during Napolitano’s term are unlikely to disappear if Kelly is named to the post.
If Obama’s backing of Kelly moves beyond the hypothetical, especially after his moving statements after the Zimmerman trial, he would be at odds with American ideals and his own stance on profiling. A Kelly nomination would effectively be an endorsement of harmful policies that alienate communities of color, instill distrust, and are ultimately ineffective.
It is critical that the next Homeland Security leader is someone who can balance the demands of enforcing the law while preserving the principles of civil rights and civil liberties upon which this country claims to hold in high esteem. Kelly’s unbending belief that racial profiling is an effective law enforcement tool makes him unqualified to take the helm at DHS.