Watching New York police commissioner Ray Kelly play the bongos alongside Cyndi Lauper at a recent NYPD Foundation fund-raiser, it's easy to forget that he has made battling terrorists part of his daily grind. His favorite refrain: "If we've been safe after 9/11, it's because of us, not the feds."
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Kelly built the most successful local counterterrorism unit in the U.S. and perhaps the world. The high-tech gizmos that the counterterrorism unit uses in its real-time crime center would make the producers (and fans) of CSI drool. The team, which has more than 600 experts and proficiency in some four dozen languages, is representative of "a police department that now mirrors our diverse population," Mayor Michael Bloomberg proudly tells Fast Company. The unit routinely dispatches officers overseas for work in cities believed to be terror targets, including Amman, London, Singapore, Tel Aviv, and Toronto, where they can listen for threats. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Madrid and Mumbai, they helped gather intelligence.
Creating the unit was no easy construction project. The FBI and CIA were not taken with the notion of anyone else on their counterterrorism turf, so Kelly had to deal with interagency politics. And then there was the significant problem of funding: Nearly 94% of the city police budget goes to personnel costs, leaving little for new programs and technology. Fortunately, the NYPD Foundation stepped in with a $1.2 million grant in 2002 to seed the project.
These days, counterterrorism strategy is something many municipalities — urban, suburban, rural — need to think about. But there's a broader lesson here too: Leaders in any community must find creative ways to respond to their constituents' changing needs — and properly managed public-private partnerships can be the way forward in an era of budget cuts. That's a drumbeat worth keeping up.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.