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Clarence Kelley

8 August 1997

The Times


Clarence M. Kelley, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), 1973-77, died on August 5 aged 85. He was born on October 24, 1911.


Appointed at a sensitive time in the FBI's history, after the death of its founding Director J. Edgar Hoover, and the resignation in disgrace of the acting director Patrick Gray for his involvement in the Watergate cover-up, Clarence M. Kelley was only the second permanent Director of the Bureau. During his term of office, he sought to restore the FBI's reputation for integrity, deflecting the brickbats of its ideological enemies, and introducing several measures of modernisation, although he found it hard to shake off the influence of former Hoover lieutenants who stood four-square against innovation.


 The son of an electrical worker, Clarence Marion Kelley was born and brought up in Kansas City, Missouri. He took a degree from the University of Kansas in 1936 and then a further degree from the University of Kansas City Law School in 1940. The commencement address at his graduation was given by the individual in charge of the Kansas City FBI office; it inspired Kelley to join the Bureau a few months later.


 Over the next two decades he saw service in ten cities around the country, with a break during the Second World War, when he served in the US Navy (1943-46), and a brief period of attachment to the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. In the late 1950s, he found himself in charge, consecutively, of the FBI offices in Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, at the height of disturbances over civil rights, but in accordance with the attitude of J. Edgar Hoover, he remained detached from these matters.


 In 1961 he left the Bureau to take up the post of police chief in his home town of Kansas City, where his predecessor and four senior departmental officers had been indicted on corruption charges. Kelley's strict ethical code was brought to bear on the department with gratifying results. He dismissed officers whom he deemed untrustworthy and recast the department in his own image. "I cannot abide a thief," he told a class of recruits in 1969. "I cannot abide a liar. These are the errors of the heart, which go to the centre of a man's character."


 Corruption, however, was not the only threat faced by the Kansas City police department. A city where the population was 20% black in 1968, yet where black police officers made up a mere 5% of the force, was inviting trouble. Kelley needed to balance the anxieties of the black minority against the morale of his low-paid and bigoted white officers, but his lack of sensitivity in this area provoked a crisis when, on the day of Martin Luther King's funeral in April 1968, a crowd of protesters, principally school children, was brutally dispersed by tear gas and baton-wielding police as if it posed a threat to public order. This led to real riots, in the course of which six unarmed black men were shot dead.


 At first, Kelley refused to apologise for the decisions which had led to this tragedy, and none of the officers involved was disciplined for over-reacting. However, Kelley realised that he needed to improve relations with the black community and to that end he appointed community workers in each precinct and launched a recruitment drive, so that by 1973 there were 100 blacks in the 1,300-strong force.


 In other areas, Kelley's tenure was more successful. Under his direction, Kansas City became the first city in the United States to introduce round-the-clock helicopter patrols in 1968. He had advocat ed computerisation of police records in 1966, and in 1968 a municipal bond issue raised the funds which made this possible. Federal funding enabled outlying towns to subscribe to this computerised service, which was called the Automated Law Enforcement Response Team, or Alert. Initally, the scope of Alert was considered too sweeping, and various civil rights groups lobbied successfully for restrictions. Yet Alert proved a valuable tool, able to track aliases and call up categories of offender.


 The Kansas City police force was increased by 400, it was better equipped, its levels of pay were increased, and its procedures were relaxed to permit greater discussion about methods between officers and patrolmen. As a result, the crime drate dropped by 24% between 1969 and 1972.

Kelley's achievements were recognised in 1972 when he was chosen as chairman of a five-man security advisory board for both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. In 1973, he was nominated by President Nixon ahead of 26 other candidates as Director of the FBI.

 Kelley assured the Senators considering his nomination that he would defer to Congress rather than the White House and that he would consider submitting an itemised budget - which would have been an unthinkable imposition in the eyes of Hoover.


 As a former Bureau man, he was received with enthusiasm by FBI agents, but he was quick to recognise that the organisation was creaky from neglect in certain key areas. One of these was the area of management skills, particularly relations with increasingly powerful media. Kelley appointed a former associate, John Coleman, who had run the police training academy in Missouri, to oversee management training, and otherwise he decided to allow field agents greater autonomy than they had enjoyed under the autocratic Hoover.


 Much of the past had been preserved in aspic at Hoover's insistence. With the exception of electronic surveillance, for instance, the FBI had been shielded from technological developments in the field of information-gathering - a consequence of Hoover's fetishistic attachment to an old-fashioned filing system.

 Although he had pioneered computerisation of police records in Kansas City, Kelley bowed to pressure from Hoover loyalists who were opposed to such technology being applied to FBI field operations. A more serious problem, however, was the shadow cast by the politically-motivated agenda of the Hoover regime. Having stated on the record that illegal FBI burglaries had ended in 1966, Kelley later had to admit that they had continued until the year of his appointment. In the summer of 1976, in the wake of new guidelines concerning domestic security, he ordered that each of the Bureau's 21,414 open investigations be reviewed and that only those involving clear evidence of criminal activity or a threat to national security should remain active.


He rooted out officers who had been feathered-bedded by contractors providing equipment and services to the Bureau. He allowed it to emerge that J. Edgar Hoover, contrary to his image of strict ethical principles, had not been above obtaining favours at the expense of the Federal taxpayer, for example using FBI employees to effect improvements to his home and even to prepare his annual return to the Internal Revenue Service.


 Yet Kelley was perhaps too much of a conventional Bureau man to confront the ghost of his former chief. Indeed, he even permitted some excesses at which Hoover himself would have balked. The staff at FBI headquarters expanded from 475 at the time of Hoover's death to more than 900 in 1977. The headquarters was seen as a theme park by its critics within the Bureau, with lines of agents firing off tracer bullets from sub-machineguns for the benefit of gawping tourists.


 In 1976 Kelley himself came under criticism for having accepted gifts from staff, and for using Bureau workmen to fit some pelmets at his home. He reimbursed the Government $335 after the disclosures, but President Jimmy Carter was able to argue on assuming office in 1976 that the issue had compromised the FBI, and it was made clear that Kelley would not be reappointed at the end of his term. Kelley retired in 1978 after Carter selected Judge William H. Webster as his replacement.


 Away from his law enforcement work, Kelley served as a deacon in the Christian Church and sat on the boards of the Kansas City Boys' Club, the United Fund, and the Starlight Theatre Association.


Clarence Kelley's first wife Ruby died in 1975. He is survived by his second wife Shirley, and a daughter and son from his first marriage.




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