Rudy Giuliani: The Myth Of ‘America’s Mayor’ After 9/11

September 11th and NYPD: The Legacy
In this 20th anniversary series, WNYC/Gothamist is exploring how the September 11th attacks fundamentally changed the NYPD, its approach to policing and the city’s relationship with the nation’s largest municipal police department. For links to all of the stories we’ve published and for more about how WNYC, Gothamist and New York Public Radio is recognizing this anniversary, scroll to the bottom of this story.

On September 11, 2001, Rudy Giuliani was transformed from lame-duck mayor to something almost larger than life.  

By the time he appeared at the 9/11 prayer service at Yankee Stadium on September 23rd, Giuliani had become a national name. Oprah Winfrey, the master of ceremonies at a somber yet patriotic event, with flags waving and the crowd cheering, introduced him as “America’s mayor” as he stepped forward to address a terrorized city and a terrified country.

“On September 11,” he began with a date that has since come to encapsulate a collective national trauma, “New York City suffered the darkest day in its history. It’s now up to us to make it our finest hour.” He spoke before thousands gathered at the stadium and millions of Americans watching on TV. 

The prosecutor-turned-mayor seemed well suited for this crisis. Seemingly unafraid, he stepped into a void of leadership to take charge — more than Governor George Pataki and arguably President George W. Bush. The mayor appeared calm, resolute, and reassuring. Empathetic, even.

“The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately,” he grimly prophesied. 

This was Rudy, bringing the nation together.

But before that day, the Rudolph Giuliani that New Yorkers knew was not a uniter. He had put his stamp on the city as a divisive figure. Giuliani first made a name for himself as a tough-nosed federal prosecutor who took down mobsters and corrupt Wall Streeters, aligning himself with law enforcement every step of the way and strategically positioning himself to further his political ambitions.

Giuliani in recent years has reinserted himself in the national conversation, most notably as the disbarred personal attorney to former President Donald Trump. Now, federal investigators are probing his foreign lobbying work and he also faces civil penalties for attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election. He did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Long before his work with Trump, however, he was a prosecutor who eyed elected office, including the presidency. Mike Paul, the national reputation manager who back in the 1990s worked in the Giuliani administration, said one issue seemed like a clear winner to a younger Giuliani. 

“Crime in New York, at that time, is seen — at least by some — as being out of control. It needs a law enforcement politician, It needs a law enforcement mayor. It needs a law enforcement elected official. And Rudy has ambitions to be that elected official and to be mayor of the city of New York,” Paul recalled.

Giuliani was not yet mayor when a young white woman, Trisha Meili, was brutally beaten and raped in a remote part of Central Park. Giuliani chose that moment to run for mayor the first time on a divisive platform of wresting back control of the city from Black and brown people. 

“This is 1989. And it’s still a majority white population in New York City,” Paul said. “Some that are fearful. And then the Central Park Five situation pops up and he works at it like a tool to say, ‘See, this is why you need me. … I’m the right guy.’”

The so-called Central Park Five, all Black and brown teenagers, were arrested and wrongfully convicted of Meili’s attack amidst this fear of crime hysteria that Giuliani helped to gin up against his opponent, Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins.

While Giuliani lost the 1989 race to Dinkins, he’d laid the groundwork for his political future, seeded with the image of New York City as lawless and dangerous, prowled by superpredators and soon-to-be mismanaged by a Black mayor who lacked police support. 

“He believes that’s a wedge issue. He believes that he can utilize that issue to help him to propel him, to become the mayor of the city of New York — by focusing on crime, by focusing on policing,” said Paul, himself an African American man who said he was criticized by friends and colleagues while he worked for Giuliani. 

And, according to Paul this alignment with law enforcement worked. “Rudy says, ‘I have your back. I’ll be there for you. Not only support me, vote for me, I’ll be there for you. … We’re going to utilize the issues of crime, the issues of race, the issues of fear, the issues that police want us to be focused on, which is: you need us to protect this town.”

Rudy Giuliani had successfully allied himself with law enforcement and mobilized the police and their unions to support him, and in1993 he beat David Dinkins in a rematch, but not before helping to incite a riot of thousands of mostly white police officers.

Upwards of 10,000 off-duty cops blocked traffic all around City Hall, many drinking, some carrying guns, some smashing store windows, and jumping on the cars of terrified motorists. And there at the center of it all stood the would-be-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, excoriating incumbent David Dinkins through a bullhorn, with some in the crowd using the n-word to describe Dinkins.

Giuliani understood instinctively that no mayor could survive without the support of law enforcement and their unions. For him, it only made sense to double down on his “law and order” brand, taking office in a year in which the city saw nearly 2,000 murders, and tacitly blaming the crime rate on one population: poor Black people.

In his first term, he hired Williamm J. Bratton as the commissioner, and the NYPD adopted a strategy called “broken windows.” The idea behind the policing strategy was that combating minor illegal activity — such as smoking marijuana or public urination — would ease a perception of more violent crime and deter would-be criminals. In effect, however, the actions were often seen as a way to unfairly target poor people and minority communities.

While it is true that crime began to fall in the mid-1990s, the extent to which the broken windows policing strategy is responsible has been hotly debated and there are conflicting studies as to its ultimate impact. Still, Bratton was behind the strategy, and Giuliani wanted the credit, leading the two men to part ways in 1996. Racial tensions that went unaddressed under Bratton’s short tenure flared after he left, exacerbated by ugly incidents that plagued Giuliani:

  • 1997. Abner Louima. The sexual battery of the Haitian immigrant took place in a bathroom at Brooklyn’s 70th precinct. Giuliani publicly defended the officers. 
  • 1999. Amadou Diallo. Police shot and killed the unarmed Ethiopian immigrant when he opened his apartment door in the Bronx. Giuliani called the shooting a tragedy but outrage mounted after the four officers who fired 41 shots at the unarmed man were acquitted of 2nd degree murder. 
  • 2000. Patrick Dorismond. Yet another unarmed black man was fatally shot by police, this time near Madison Square Garden. The mayor supported the officers and drew the rancor of many people of color.  

Giuliani was on his way out of office and dropping in the polls on September 11, 2001. But with his take-charge demeanor, Giuliani was able to instantly regain the public trust—a political trump card he used to vastly boost police budgets and investigative powers. 

Despite any differences he may have had with Giuliani before 9/11, Bratton still defends the NYPD’s need — then and now — for a robust, top-down structure, buoyed by a strong mayor. 

But even more, he commended the man who implemented the changes: his colleague Raymond Kelly, who, like Bratton, has twice served as the city’s top cop, the second time in January 2002.  

Kelly hired 1,000 new officers, 25 analysts, and five intelligence supervisors — an unprecedented budget increase powered by political sentiment that prioritized the rapid investment in force and intelligence following the September 11th attacks. 

John Miller is the current NYPD’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism. He said New York led the way in creating a counterterrorism program built on three pillars: intelligence, analysis, and prevention. 

“Do you have the intelligence? Do you understand the threat picture in your area? Do you have the analysis so that you can figure out what’s wheat? What’s chaff, what’s important. What’s imminent? Not figuring out who did the attack after the fact, but prevent the attack from happening. And that’s the three pillars,” Miller said. 

In the waning days of Giuliani’s mayoralty, the NYPD began to build a bigger more intensely powerful department, one that has capacities likely beyond even what Giuliani imagined. Miller said it has paid off in ways the public does not fully appreciate.

“If you look at 2002 through 2014, you see a lot of plots. Either run by Al-Qaeda or inspired by Al-Qaeda,” Miller said. “When you look at 2014 to 2021, ISIS completely rewrites the book on running a terrorist organization and recruiting terrorists. So you see the plots shoot upwards. Then we see the entry of the domestic terrorists, far left-wing terrorists, far right-wing terrorists, neo-Nazis, all kinds of groups came to the fore. So this is a constantly evolving threat in the 9/11 world.”

Jami Floyd is the Senior Editor for Race and Justice at WNYC/Gothamist. If you have a tip for her, she’s on Signal and WhatsApp. Or you can message her on Twitter @jamifloyd.

September 11th Special Coverage
New York Public Radio has extensive programming planned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. It includes news analysis and coverage on WNYC radio and Gothamist, special live coverage of the memorial on September 11, news coverage in the days leading up to September 11, and music of reflection and commemoration on classical station WQXR. Details follow:

September 11 and NYPD: The Legacy
About this series: Dozens of journalists and engineers in the WNYC newsroom came together to produce this series for Gothamist and WNYC radio. The series, which ends on September 11, explores how the terror attacks 20 years ago fundamentally changed the NYPD. The 20th anniversary comes amid another critical moment in U.S. history: a reckoning over race and policing, here in New York City and across the country. Over the last two decades, the NYPD has undergone a dramatic transformation, growing in capacity, reach, and power. Those changes are evident today in virtually every aspect of policing in New York City — from the department’s enforcement around street protests, to its vast international network, to its presence on mass transit, to its all-round philosophy of public safety.
Day One: NYPD’s history from founding to 9/11
Day Two: How NYPD’s Powers Expanded After 9/11
Day Three: A Legacy of Police Surveillance (Part One and Part Two)
Day Four: See Something, Say Something
Day Five: America’s Mayor and NYPD
Day Six: Living with Trauma: COVID-19 and 9/11
Day Seven: The Sacrifice of Survivors

Live Memorial  Coverage
On September 11, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer will host special live coverage of official memorial ceremonies starting at 8:35 a.m. At 11 a.m., WNYC will air “Blindspot: The Road to 9/11,” a two-hour radio documentary adapted from the nine-part podcast hosted by WNYC’s Jim O Grady.

Classical music station WQXR also has special programming planned throughout the day on September 11. The program includes a asegment on John Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning composition “On the Transmigration of Souls,” the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the New York Philharmonic.For other radio news programming planned during the week click here.