The ultimate joke of Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton’s blustery war over the manipulation of crime statistics is that both men have done it. That isn’t speculation: the NYPD under Kelly and the LAPD under Bratton were both shown, through rigorous reporting, to have massaged stats with the presumable intent of making their cities look safer. But if the fight isn’t really about the stats, what could it possibly be about?

On New Year’s Day, the New York Times published a lengthy examination of the rivalry between NYPD commissioner Bratton and former NYPD commissioner Kelly. As it turns out, the bad blood goes back to far earlier than last month, when Kelly publicly accused Bratton of stats manipulation and Bratton told him to “be a big man” in response.

In understanding why the men have been taking shots at each other, it’s helpful to remember their intertwined histories. When Kelly first took the helm of the NYPD in 1992, Bratton was on the short list of candidates for the job and missed out. When Bratton first became commissioner in ’94, Kelly was his direct predecessor. Later, Kelly was commissioner under Bloomberg from 2002 to 2013, and again Bratton is his successor.

With each changing of the guard, the men took swipes at each other. In ’94, Kelly told reporters that any drop in crime they saw should be credited to the groundwork his department laid for Bratton’s; in 2014, Bratton called out his predecessor for leaving him an NYPD that had “awful morale.” When Bratton visited New York as commissioner of the LAPD, Kelly purposefully avoided contact with him, the Times’ sources say. For two decades, they have circled the same job, and each thinks he can do it better than the other.

Before stats came to the fore of their feud, Kelly and Bratton most often traded criticism about stop-and-frisk, and their approaches to that tactic mark the most obvious difference in their respective policing styles. During Kelly’s second term, the department began stopping New Yorkers with unprecedented frequency, and the ensuing backlash greatly influenced the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appointed Bratton. The latter commissioner all but ended the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk upon assuming the office, instead focusing on so-called “broken windows” policing, a theory which holds that aggressively arresting people for minor crimes will lead to a decline in major crimes.

But even those barbs about a critical policy difference don’t hold up to examination. From the Times:

Mr. Bratton was also critical of what he saw as overuse of the stop-and-frisk tactic under Mr. Kelly, rankling the former commissioner’s supporters. “The rivalry was Bratton’s rivalry,” said Valerie Salembier, a former head of the nonprofit New York City Police Foundation and an admirer of Mr. Kelly. “I felt that when somebody comes into a new job, and they have to make the person who came before them look bad, that comes from a profound insecurity.”

For his part, Mr. Kelly has been saying that constraints placed on stop and frisk are the cause of an uptick in murders. He pointed out that Mr. Bratton made heavy use of the tool when he ran the Los Angeles police force.

“He had a higher stop rate in Los Angeles than we had here,” Mr. Kelly said.

Kelly and Salembier are almost certainly right to some degree: despite his recent disavowal, Bratton was such a vigorous stop-and-frisk supporter during his first term that he’s often cited as the architect of the practice in NYC.

Next time Bratton or Kelly takes a shot at his counterpart in the press, remember that the two commissioners really are much more alike than they are different. Each is jealous and wary of the other. In stop-and-frisk and broken windows, each favors an approach to policing that largely targets people of color and the poor. And when push comes to shove, neither is afraid to muck with the statistics.

Contact the author at