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Kerik a veteran of mean streets
NEW YORK (The New York Daily News) -- City cops and federal agents probing a major heroin ring in Washington Heights in 1991 couldn't get close enough to watch the goings-on at a suspected stash house.
So ponytailed Detective Bernard Kerik took to the streets as a homeless person. He stripped off his shoes and shirt and planted himself on a stoop. He sat for hours and watched, until he had seen enough to link an apartment building to the case.
That kind of tenacity and dedication to detail amid danger helped propel Kerik to commissioner of the nation's largest police force.
"If I said we needed more evidence, he would figure out how to get it," said Bridget Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor.
"I have to get used to calling him commissioner; I always call him Bernie," she said.
Yesterday, a day after he turned 45 years old, Kerik was formally sworn in on the steps of City Hall, surrounded by police in dress uniform and the pomp of brass bands.
It's a story with more than a touch of Horatio Alger: Kerik comes from blue-collar beginnings in gritty Paterson, N.J., dropped out of his troubled high school, never got beyond the lowest rank of detective and yet won the trust of Mayor Giuliani with his street savvy.
On his way to the top floor of 1 Police Plaza, he worked in Saudi Arabia, served in the Army and ran a county lockup and the sprawling New York City jail system.
He takes the helm of the Police Department with a reservoir of goodwill and a reputation as a straight shooter, and he'll need those assets to revitalize a morale-bereft force and build community support.
Kerik is undaunted.
"Morale is not going to be that difficult an object to get over," said the soft-spoken Kerik. "I think the people of the city have been tremendously supportive; they're always saying they need more cops, they love cops. We have to get that message to the cops."
And, he said, he will measure police-community relations as closely as he does crime statistics.
"The best partner a cop can have is the community," he said.
The two weeks since Giuliani appointed Kerik have been free of scandal, police tragedy and high-profile crime.
He has visited precinct houses and churches, attending to bureaucratic duties on weekends in his Police Headquarters office. Photographs there recall wilder times: longhaired Kerik escorting a drug kingpin; Kerik posing with a mountain of cocaine and money; Kerik and his Army canine; Kerik in his white karate gi, with black belt.
In those days, Kerik won a medal for valor after saving his partner in a shootout, and chased drug dealers from Central America to Switzerland.
A former supervisor called Kerik a "mayhem magnet" as a rookie in the Midtown South Precinct, because he was always at the center of the action while on duty.
Being a cop was the job he always wanted. He carries his five-star gold commissioner's shield in the same worn leather case that held his silver police officer badge.
He has also showed compassion, touching the heart of a drug prosecutor when he attended her father's wake, although in his drug-thug getup.
"Bernie came to the wake from work; he was wearing a full-length leather coat, he had a ponytail," said Brennan. "Her family said, ‘Now, there's an undercover cop.'"
Though he now favors Ferragamo loafers, white shirts, dark silk-blend suits and close-cropped hair, Kerik has never stopped watching the streets.
As correction commissioner, Kerik often ended an evening out with a surprise visit to Rikers Island, just to check on things.
As police commissioner, he said, he will drive around the city on his own, to observe neighborhoods and how they're patrolled.
On his second day on the job, Kerik saw a parked police van on Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. "There were seven cops and a sergeant reading the newspapers and eating doughnuts," he told a meeting of police brass. "That has to stop."
Born in Newark, Kerik grew up in Paterson, a former silk mill town on the Passaic River. Kerik, a brother and two sisters were raised by an Irish-American mother, Clara, and Russian-American father, Donald.
Donald Kerik toiled as a machinist in one factory for 30 years, retired, and now is on the assembly line at a Ford Motor Co. plant in New Jersey.
Kerik attended Eastside High School, part of a white minority in a chaotic school that became famous for its baseball-bat-wielding principal, Joe Clark.
He dropped out in 1974 and joined the Army, serving as a dog handler in Korea. Then he worked in Saudi Arabia, training security personnel and coordinating protection for the king and other heads of state. He knows a smattering of Korean and Arabic.
He worked as warden of the Passaic County Jail, then took a pay cut to become a New York City cop in 1986.
It was at a dinner to raise funds for a slain cop's family that Kerik formed a bond with Giuliani. He served as a bodyguard for Giuliani's 1993 campaign and took over the Correction Department in 1998, when jails were over capacity and there were dozens of inmate slashings a month. In all of last year, there were 70.
John Boston of the Legal Aid Society's prisoners rights project called Kerik's tenure at the Correction Department "a very mixed bag ... certainly there have been genuine accomplishments, but some things he has been given credit for would have happened anyway."
Boston agreed inmate-on-inmate violence was reduced greatly, but said he didn't see general improvement in the use of force by correction officers.
Another inmate advocate, Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, had only praise for Kerik.
"I went to him about a female inmate who said she was beaten by a correction officer in a court holding pen. ... Kerik had it investigated, and the officers involved were penalized.
"When things were not being done properly, whether excessive use of force, or phones not working properly, he was concerned," said Gangi.
Kerik and his wife, Halah, live in the Bronx with their 5-month-old daughter, Celine. He has a 15-year-old son, Joseph, from his first marriage.
He calls his son his "best friend" and enjoys going to the boy's soccer and football games.
The sturdily built Kerik used to work out regularly at Chelsea Piers and run along the West Side Highway.
"That's kind of over," he said. "I just work."
But the mention of Celine brings a relaxed grin and the acknowledgment of one off-duty pleasure.
"I'm having a blast," he said. "I get up early, spend a half-hour just playing in the morning, and then at night before going to bed. I'm her toy."
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