SUCCESSES AND SKIRMISHES: Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill will step down as head of the nation’s largest police force Nov. 30. His three-year term has been marked by historically low crime rates and by a renewed effort to win the trust of residents through a neighborhood-policing initiative, but also by conflicts with police-union leaders that began early in his tenure.

Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill’s departure from the NYPD at the end of the month will bookend a three-year tenure characterized by falling crime, the implementation of a neighborhood-policing strategy and a department with an increased reliance on technology.

He also will leave behind the nation’s largest police department buffeted, from inside and outside, by his controversial firing of an officer, the suicides of 10 others and two “friendly-fire” killings, all this year.   

Officer’s Firing, Other Trials

Mayor de Blasio appointed the department’s Chief of Detectives, Dermot Shea, 50, a 28-year NYPD cop and a protégé of both Mr. O’Neill and his predecessor as Commissioner, William Bratton, as his successor.

Mr. O’Neill, who is leaving his post for an undisclosed job in the private sector, will be credited for investing in a neighborhood-policing philosophy as a way to build relationships with residents in predominantly black and Latino communities following years of “broken-windows” enforcement that targeted—and alienated—many in those neighborhoods.

But he is exiting with many in those communities, as well as activists and elected officials, loudly demanding change in police methods following several high-profile incidents involving officers.

His departure also comes as the NYPD struggles to cope with the rash of suicides, more than twice the number that typically befalls the department annually.

And in late September, Officer Brian Mulkeen was shot and killed by fellow officers as he wrestled with an armed suspect outside a notorious Bronx public-housing block, the second officer killed by friendly fire following the February death of Detective Brian Simonsen as he and six other officers responded to a burglary in progress at a Queens cellphone store. That prompted pressing questions about the department’s training regimens.

Defined by Pantaleo Call

But Commissioner O’Neill’s touchstone event will be his firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo after he was found guilty of using a department-prohibited chokehold that, at trial, Civilian Complaint Review Board prosecutors said led to the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014.

Although he said the Pantaleo matter was not “a motivating factor” in his decision, he admitted it weighed on him “heavily,” as it did on the entire department. But, he added, “it was the right decision.”

It also is “the right time” to leave, he added. “I have to move forward, the NYPD has to move forward, and I know they’re going to do it,” he said in the City Hall Blue Room following the Nov. 4 announcement of his departure.

With characteristic candor, he said a Commissioner’s job “comes with a lot of pressure...This is all I’ve thought about for the last 38 months—24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Mr. O’Neill’s decision to fire the Officer further frayed his relationships with the police unions, particularly with the leaders of the Police Benevolent Association and the Sergeants Benevolent Association, and devolved to the point where one or the other was regularly calling on him to resign since then.

‘Looking Forward’

In a statement issued shortly after Mr. O’Neill’s departure was announced, Mr. Lynch welcomed Chief Shea’s appointment as a chance to reboot the rapport between rank-and-file cops and department brass that had eroded leading up to and following Mr. Pantaleo’s firing.

“The challenges facing the NYPD are enormous, but so are the opportunities,” he said. “We look forward to working with Commissioner Shea to combat the current anti-police atmosphere and make positive changes that will improve the lives of our police officers and every New Yorker we protect.”

Mr. Shea, 50, a 28-year NYPD veteran who grew in Sunnyside, Queens, has gotten high marks for his work as Chief of Detectives, a post he has held since April 2018.

He joined the department in 1991 as a beat cop in the South Bronx, a year when more than 2,100 people were killed in the city. New York now is on track to record fewer than 300 murders for the third year running, lows last glimpsed nearly 70 years ago.

“I think we've done what many said was impossible...We further pushed crime down,” Mr. Shea said. “The blueprint I think is here; I think it's time to build on it. There is more work to do for all. We cannot and will not rest until all New Yorkers feel safe. Certainly, we focus on safety of human life, but we also must remain vigilant to ensure that the concerns of all New Yorkers are met.”

A ‘Neighborhood’ Guy

He suggested that the model to accomplish that was the one Mr. O’Neill had helped draft.

“I think that neighborhood policing obviously is the future. We’re going to continue to build out on that and we’re going to make sure all New Yorkers really feel it,” he said.

Following stints as commander of the 44th and 50th precincts, both in the Bronx, Mr. Shea was promoted by Chief Bratton to Chief of Crime Control Strategies and Deputy Commissioner for Operations. In those capacities, he oversaw the department’s CompStat system and refined data-driven techniques to both combat and prevent crime.

Mr. Shea  “knows this city inside and out,” Mr. de Blasio said of his next Police Commissioner. The Mayor said his third pick, after Mr. Bratton and Mr. O’Neill, to lead the 44,000-member department was among “the best-prepared incoming Police Commissioners this city has ever seen.”

“Dermot brings a wealth of leadership experience and he knows what policing needs to be in the 21st century,” the Mayor said. “Again, we are building a police department, not just for today but for tomorrow, and Dermot has been one of the people who most could see the future and help to take us there.” 

‘Long Overdue’

Mr. O’Neill’s resignation was applauded by the president of the 13,000-member Sergeants Benevolent Association, Ed Mullins, who called the departure “long overdue.”

“As a puppet of the de Blasio incompetent and dishonest mayoral administration, he has been the catalyst for New York City’s hands-off policing and ongoing descent of overall quality of life and violent street crimes to which we are seeing an increase,” Mr. Mullins said in a statement. The SBA leader has been angry with Mr. O’Neill since early in his tenure, when following the shooting of an emotionally disturbed woman by Sgt. Hugh Barry after she swung a baseball bat at him, the Commissioner told reporters, “We failed.” The Mayor compounded Sergeant Mullins's anger when he harshly pinned the blame solely on Sergeant Barry, who was acquitted in a criminal trial last year.

The union leader said Commissioner O’Neill had squandered what little credibility he had with members of the department when he fired Mr. Pantaleo “for the sake of political expediency.”

Mr. O’Neill was heavily criticized by the police-union leaders and Mr. Pantaleo’s lawyer for defaulting on a purported deal that would have allowed the officer to resign and qualify for a partial pension after Deputy Commissioner for Trials Rosemarie Maldonado recommended he be fired following his CCRB trial.

Mr. Lynch at the time was also sharply critical of Mr. O’Neill, charging that “the New York City Police Department is rudderless and frozen.” The union subsequently held a “no-confidence” vote regarding both the Mayor and Commissioner O’Neill.

Sharp Divisions

Mr. O’Neill, who did not disclose the private-sector position he was taking, was a prime proponent of the neighborhood-policing program that was intended to get officers more involved in the areas they patrolled, both as an anti-crime tool and to ease tensions between cops and some minority communities.

In recent months, however, sharpened divisions arose between police and black communities and elected officials over several street confrontations. In some instances, those involved disrespect shown to officers by neighborhood residents; others brought charges of excessive force against cops.

Two recent incidents in Brooklyn, both on Oct. 25 and each captured on video and disseminated on social media, including one during which a Sergeant is seen punching two young men during a melee at the Jay Street subway station, brought the department renewed scrutiny from activists and some elected officials.

In a subsequent interview, Mr. Mullins blamed a culture of disrespect for police he said Mr. O’Neill did little to address.

“There is an anti-police atmosphere across the nation, and the main stage is in New York City,” he said. “It’s getting worse and worse.”  

Since Mr. Pantaleo’s firing, Mr. Mullins said, police officers “are hesitant to make arrests or to get into sticky situations” because they don’t feel they’re going to get backing from police brass—what he termed “the Pantaleo effect.”


Mr. O’Neill’s decision to fire the officer, Mr. Mullins said, had “handcuffed” officers and further eroded beat cops’ confidence that they would be defended by superiors following confrontations.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said the Sergeant, a 38-year NYPD veteran. “It’s just a very difficult time for police. Morale is broken.”

Mr. Shea’s appointment, he said, offered the possibility of renewed trust and mutual support between department brass and street cops. For that to happen, Mr. Shea must convey that the department will not tolerate the abuse of officers by some members of the public, he said.

“We need a change of direction,” Mr. Mullins said. “We’ve needed a change of direction for a while.”

The president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, Michael J. Palladino, said he was “not surprised” by Mr. O’Neill’s departure, and suggested that the fallout from the Pantaleo case “expedited” his decision to leave the department.

The firing, he said, “was an unpopular decision,” and likely burdened even Mr. O’Neill. “I think it was contrary to his DNA,” he said.

He welcomed Mr. Shea’s appointment, calling him “sharp” and “well-liked,” and said it could help mend an unsettled department.

“I look forward to working with him and I certainly wish him a lot of success,” he said, “because if he’s successful the men and women of the NYPD will be successful.”

Richard Steier contributed to this story.


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