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In 1983, when Ray Kelly MC/MPA 1984 entered the Kennedy School’s Mid-Career Program as a New York City police captain, police officers were something of a rarity at the school. But in the past 30 years, officers from the country’s most famous police department have become commonplace. Each year, one or two leave their posts and head north. Many describe it as one of the best years of their lives.

By the time they arrive at the school, they have spent years on the job, rising through the ranks in precincts and units throughout the organization, as street cops, precinct commanders, undercovers, and detectives, in the organized crime control bureau, special operations division, and intelligence division. Many already hold advanced degrees.

They are an elite group within an elite police department. The oldest and largest municipal police force in the United States, the NYPD today employs more than 37,000 police officers. The country’s second largest — the Chicago Police Department — has just over one-third that number.

Kennedy School lecturer Frank Hartmann, who for more than 20 years was executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management and who has taught many of the NYPD students, says the officers bring a unique perspective to the classroom. “These students have a wonderful balance of reality and aspiration,” he says. “They are invariably thoughtful and they both ground and inspire the other students.”

Christine Cole MC/MPA 2001, current executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management agrees: “They bring the confidence and the experience to be able to be great contributors in class and raise the mantle of the importance of understanding criminal justice as a key component of government.”

Hartmann praises the NYPD for its strategic, forward-thinking management style in providing officers with the opportunity to spend a year pursuing advanced training. Departments from around the world send police officers to the school, but the NYPD has sent far greater numbers. “It is rare for other departments to do this,” says Hartmann. While this is partly because of the department’s size and resources, he says, it also reflects an enlightened approach to management.

From his office at police headquarters at One Police Plaza, Kelly describes the value of the Kennedy School degree to the department. “Policing can be an insulating experience,” he says. “We want to take our managers and future leaders out of the realm of everyday policing and expose them beyond the police department. It develops them for future assignments.”

For Kelly, those assignments led to the top of the NYPD. He is the department’s longest-serving commissioner since Governor Theodore Roosevelt created the position more than a century ago, and he is the only one to hold the office twice (he first served as commissioner from 1992 to 1994). Now in the 10th year of his second term, he has dramatically reshaped the department, building a counter-terrorism operation that before 9/11 had approximately two-dozen officers into one that today has more than 1,000. He has overseen the implementation and expansion of CompStat, a highly regarded accountability process that has been replicated throughout the country, and instituted the Real Time Crime Center, a department-wide system for responding to crises. Says Hartmann of Kelly: “He is uniquely equipped to lead the department.”

According to Kelly, the school offers the officers new ways of approaching problems. “It makes you value discussion as a more collaborative way of doing business,” an approach, he says, that does not come naturally to policing. “This business is a hierarchical business,” he says. “The Harvard approach is more open and about working on problems as a team. Even as you go up a rank, as a sergeant, you’re not working with other sergeants.”

As a student, Captain Brandon del Pozo MC/MPA 2004, commanding officer at the 50th precinct in the Bronx, marveled at that approach when he watched two other students — an Israeli diplomat and a Palestinian government official — debate the security fence and wall around the West Bank. “To the observer, you would say there’s no way these people could have a civil conversation and there’s no way they could find common ground,” says del Pozo. “To understand that it’s possible, you need to really commit yourself to gaining an in-depth understanding, rather than a superficial understanding, and I think what the Kennedy School encourages is to take a very long, sophisticated view toward politics at every level.”

Former Deputy Chief James McShane MC/MPA 1992, vice president for public safety at Columbia University, remembers that his core assumptions were challenged in an economics class when he was grouped with students from non-capitalist countries. “That’s the kind of experience,” he says, “that can make you see things in a different light.”

“That change in perspective is subtle but real,” Kelly says. “You are taking the lessons and, depending on where you are in this organization, helping people manage this big, complex organization in the most diverse city in the world.”

The advantages of the officers’ presence at the school work both ways, says Cole, who served for many years in local government. The officers’ breadth of experience offers their fellow students important learning opportunities. “Criminal justice policy and management tends to be the biggest part of state and local budgets, so when we think about training future leaders in public service — future city managers, governors, and legislators, and for our international students, leaders of their countries — the more opportunity we have to help them understand the role and complex policies of criminal justice, the better we serve our future leaders.”

Like all degree program students, the officers must fulfill program requirements but are otherwise free to choose courses according to their interests. Some enroll in criminal justice-related classes, while others cast a wider net, enrolling in philosophy, economics, Web-design, and education courses, cross-registering at other schools within the university.

Deputy Chief Kevin Ward MC/MPA 2004, who serves in the Organized Crime and Control Bureau (OCCB), which oversees the narcotics, vice, auto crime, firearms and gang divisions, says the school helped him to sharpen his ability to tackle problems. “I learned how to think more concisely and to always attack a problem by getting as much information as possible,” he says. “It made me a much better writer. Identify the issue, apply the facts, develop a plan, and evaluate your plan. Get right to the point.”

What New York is doing is extraordinary,” Cole continues. “It’s an appreciation that the school not only gives you skills, but it also exposes you to different kinds of thinking. Not only does the NYPD get a skilled person back, but also someone who’s had exposure to policing in another part of the world. You don’t learn about international policing in America without coming to a place like this. The NYPD students may have a class colleague in India or Pakistan or Australia or Azerbaijan or Israel or Denver.” This year, five police officers from Pakistan and two from India are enrolled in the Mid-Career program.

In 2006, del Pozo learned the importance of such relationships during an assignment as intelligence liaison abroad. When terrorists blew up six commuter trains along Mumbai’s transit system, killing 150 passengers and injuring more than 400 people, del Pozo immediately contacted former police executive classmates from India who gave him entree to Indian law enforcement. “Thanks to those contacts, I was on the ground in Mumbai in about 48 hours and soon sending very detailed reports back to New York City.”

The officers also value the importance of their exposure to visiting world figures who appear at the school’s seminars, lectures, and the Forum. McShane remembers arriving at the school in 1991 at the height of the presidential campaign, surprised and delighted by the proximity he had to the candidates. “The parade of people who passed through the Forum was phenomenal,” he says, from world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, who spoke at the school soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to filmmaker Oliver Stone, who had just released JFK.

This exposure is what many regard as the school’s “sixth course.” Says Deputy Inspector Robert Harnischfeger MC/MPA 2002: “The speakers in the Forum and the brown bags gave me such an interesting perspective. It was a whole other influence.” His year at the school allowed him to reassess and enhance his skills. “It was helpful on a couple of different levels,” he says. “It allowed me to hone basic communication and negotiation skills, but also explore and enhance more specialized skills, such as law enforcement, criminal justice, and counter-terrorism.”

Despite their numerous accomplishments, some say they were initially intimidated by coming to Harvard, worried they might not belong. NYPD Inspector Terrence Riley MC/MPA 2004 remembers the first day of the summer program when the Mid-Career class was assured during welcoming remarks that the school didn’t make a mistake. Says Riley: “I didn’t miss a step after that.”

Those with families sometimes bring them along for the year, enrolling children in local schools, while others might spend weekends at home in New York. Many note that the friendships they made were as important as what they learned in class. “I feel comfortable reaching out to any of my classmates no matter where they work,” says Riley. “I’m certain I’ll get a response.”

The criminal justice program, says Cole, offers these students a home at the school, where police officers from both NYPD and other departments around the world can learn about university-wide criminal justice-related classes, events, and speakers. The program also provides them with access to high-level practitioners. Lieutenant Ron Wilhelmy MC/MPA 2011 helped Cole organize the National Police Executive Session held on campus in January.

Several sources of financial support help the officers cover the costs of their year at the school. The New York City Police Foundation offers funding, and in 2003 the Kennedy School established the New York City Firefighters, Police, and Emergency Workers Public Service Fellowship to honor those first responders who died in the 9/11 attacks. Thus far, the fellowship has been awarded to eight first responders. Additionally, last year the Harvard Club of New York (HCNY) established the HCNY Foundation Fellowship.

Through the years, Commissioner Kelly’s ties to the school have remained strong. In April, he will speak at the Harvard Club of New York to recognize the club’s fellowship, at an event hosted by Dean David Ellwood.

“As society has become a lot more diverse, the school has proven itself to be flexible to adjusting to the times,” says Kelly. “While the school is a bastion of public policy principles that stand the test of time, it also reflects the changes that are going on throughout the world. The Kennedy School is great.”