The first time I met Bernie Kerik was in his giant office at 1 Police Plaza. Bernie is a showy guy who makes an instant impression with his barrel chest and massive arms. But the thing he most wanted to show me was the Koran he had been given on a visit he’d made to a mosque on his first day as police commissioner. Kerik’s wife, Hala, is from Syria, and it was important to him that all the city’s groups understood that he was there to protect them. This was a year before September 11 made “don’t resort to group blame” a catchphrase. But that’s the kind of guy Bernie is.
On his last day as police commissioner, December 31, Bernie had something special for me. He knew I’m a motorcycle rider and a cop buff, so he gave me his police-issued special commissioner five-star helmet. It’s an irreplaceable objet d’art, unbuyable at any price. But that’s the kind of guy Bernie is.
In our justice system, prosecutors wield tremendous power over the accused. They virtually never lose a case, so when they’ve got you in their sights, they can essentially force you to accept a plea deal, because your lawyer understands—as do all your family members and anyone else who is counting on you—that they’ve got all the leverage.
I’m a law-and-order guy, as is Bernie. So when someone is convicted, I tend to believe that they did something worthy of that conviction. Even when an over-the-top judge sentences him to a year more than the prosecutors requested, citing “operatic proportions of this case.” I don’t know what Bernie did or did not do with regard to what he eventually wound up serving three and a half years in prison for. What I do know is that a man’s entire life cannot be summarized by a couple of bad decisions. The punishment our society doles out does not take the entire measure of the man.
People make mistakes. Bernie Kerik made a few bad ones. But that doesn’t undo the fact that the murder rate continued its miraculous fall while he was commissioner. It doesn’t undo what we all saw on television during those horrible days after September 11 when, amid unbelievable grief, Bernie buried 23 of his guys and ensured the safety of the city during fears of what were thought to be continued attacks, while also restoring the belief that the city was a safe place to live and work.
Every man I know has a few major sins on his résumé. A few of them got caught breaking the law, and a few of those were punished with separation from their loved ones. That’s a shame. But the real tragedy is when somebody who has earned a lifetime of goodwill and committed a lifetime of good deeds is remembered only for the mistakes he has made.
Welcome home, Bernie Kerik. The good you did for New York City outshines whatever mistakes you made. Let’s hope the rest of your days in the public eye provide ample opportunity for the mistakes to fade into the background and that your good works regain the credit you’ve earned.