New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly enters a news conference on October 26, 2012 in New York City. Kelly discussed the city's storm preparations and his impromptu bedside promotion this morning of Ivan Marcano, an off-duty officer who was shot this week while confronting two robbers. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The guy who could have the biggest influence on the race for mayor of New York City isn’t a candidate. In fact, he has never run for office.

But the candidates running for mayor – and the city’s voters – are turning the fall elections into a kind of referendum on the legacy and tactics of longtime police commissioner Ray Kelly, especially his controversial use of the crimefighting strategy known as “stop-and-frisk.”

It has long been accepted police policy – blessed by the courts – to briefly detain and question people who appear to have committed a crime.

In New York, however, the number and quality of police stops has led to vocal complaints and lawsuits.

To double down on or drop stop-and-frisk?

“The police are stopping hundreds of thousands of law abiding New Yorkers every year, and the vast majority are black and Latino,” says the website of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which successfully sued the NYPD to get data on the volume of stops.

The NYCLU numbers showed that about 90 percent of the 3.8 million stops New York cops made over the last decade yielded nothing – no guns, knives, drugs or outstanding warrants.  But activists, noting that 86 percent of the people stopped were black and Latino, are calling the policy a form of racial profiling and demanding that stop-and-frisk be changed, curtailed or abolished.

Kelly defends the high number of stops as essential to lowering New York’s crime rate, and even doubled down on the policy, recently telling ABC News that “African Americans are being understopped in relation to people being described as perpetrators of violent crime.” [emphasis added]

The comment outraged many community leaders, some of whom sued the NYPD in federal court for civil rights violations, leading to a high-profile trial before a judge who is expected to hand down a ruling soon.

Courting Ray Kelly

Kelly has many fans in civic leadership circles, including the editorial boards of the daily papers. He regularly scores higher approval ratings in polls than any elected officials in the city — including his boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Kelly’s amen corners includes the three Republicans running for mayor. In the words of Joseph Lhota, who is leading the GOP field in the polls, New York’s plunge in crime since the early 1990s is a “fragile” advance that could be lost if the next mayor doesn’t keep up the pressure against crooks.

The other Republican candidates, George McDonald and John Catsimatidis, are also Kelly fans, and have offered to keep him on as commissioner if they win. In fact, before entering the race, Catsimatidis publicly asked Kelly to run. (Kelly, who has repeatedly been approached by Republican party leaders, regularly turns down requests to pursue elected office, although he also has not ruled out the possibility.)

Democrats dance around the issue

Things are a little more complicated on the Democratic side of the mayoral campaign.  Frontrunner Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, says she would keep Kelly as police commissioner, a stance that drew boos at a candidate forum hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Quinn says she would reduce and refocus stop-and-frisk, but keeping Kelly is widely viewed as a virtual endorsement of the current program.

Another Democratic hopeful, city comptroller John Liu, is at the other end of the spectrum, calling stop-and-frisk an illegal act of racial profiling that he would simply abolish if elected mayor.

Most other Democrats are offering variations on “mend it, don’t end it.”  An inspector general of the NYPD would allow for independent review of the department, says Bill de Blasio, the city’s Public Advocate (a largely ceremonial office whose most important power is to assume the mayoralty if the mayor should die, quit, or become incapacitated while in office). De Blasio recently released a report debunking some of the NYPD’s claims about the relationship between stop-and-frisk and New York’s decline in crime.

Bill Thompson, a former comptroller who ran for mayor in 2009, says an inspector general would simply add a layer of bureaucracy.  Thompson’s preferred solution is to replace Kelly and order the next commissioner to reduce the scope and reach of stop-and-frisk.

The newest entrant into the race, former congressman Anthony Weiner, opposes an inspector general, which he says would “blur lines of authority.”

Voters will have a clear choice

With just over 100 days to go before the September 10 primary, New Yorkers of all races will weigh in on the tricky question of helping police do their job without trampling on the rights and civil liberties of black and Latino young men.

Voters will have a clear choice between candidates who want to keep some version of the status quo and those who want to increase oversight of the NYPD.

While the city is making up its mind, Kelly – the man at the center of the commotion – will continue the business of making and keeping New York the safest big city in America. And thousands more young people, mostly black and Latino, will have encounters with law enforcement that breed bad feelings and complaints, but will solve no crimes.