There’s a new sheriff in town in the Big Apple. On Sunday, Dermot Shea took over as the 44th police commissioner in the history of the New York City Police Department.
Up until today, every month Shea would sit in with NYPD officials and the mayor to brief reporters on the latest crime statistics. In the briefing room, there is a big, blue sign saying:
“Safest Big City in America.”
Now, Shea has the ultimate responsibility for maintaining that status. However, Shea faces strong headwinds in keeping that going.
Shea is replacing James O’Neill, who retired to become the head of global security for Visa, Inc. Both O’Neill and Shea have been raising concerns about new criminal justice reforms that take effect on January 1, which LET has reported about recently.
In addition, there is a plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with four new jails citywide.
“The deck is stacked against him,” said Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD sergeant who is now teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Changes that will be taking place on Jan. 1 include the elimination of bail for non-violent felonies, issuance of appearance tickets instead of arrests for low-level offenses, and the requirement that law enforcement officials provide additional information to defendants earlier in the criminal justice process.
O’Neill is concerned that people involved in violent crimes will be released whenever they get picked up for lesser offenses. He said:
“It’s a lot to throw at us at one time.”
Criminal justice reform advocates say the changes will bring overdue fairness to a system that has long filled jails with people who are accused of low-level crimes and are unable to afford bail.
This comes amid a push in various corners to move away from mass incarceration. Some more radical proposals, such as that from Socialist New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, suggest eliminating jails and prisons completely.
People who are more committed to a “law and order” way of conducting business are afraid that these proposals will make the city less safe.
The proposal to close Rikers brings with it another set of issues. Officials are pushing to reduce the number of people locked up daily by more than half, to 3,300 inmates by 2026. The number stands at 7,000 today.
A significant drop in the crime rate, along with a shift in the NYPD approach to minor offenses have already cut the city’s jail population, which peaked at nearly 22,000 in 1991. Ironically, that is the year that Shea joined the department.
Under former mayors Rudy Giuliani and even Michael Bloomberg, New York had earned a reputation as being tough on crime.
The NYPD implemented the model prevalent in the 1990’s and championed by former president Bill Clinton. By implementing the so-called “broken windows theory” of policing, which treated low level offenses as a gateway to bigger crimes, the crime rate dropped rather significantly.
Shea and O’Neill worked together to unwind that program. Shea developed a more data-driven strategy for fighting and preventing crime, which resulted in officers being pushed out of their patrol cars and onto the streets in order to build bonds with residents.
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Shea referred to the approach as neighborhood policing and said that it is vital to coping with the shifting criminal justice landscape.
Police officers were more increasingly focused on drivers of crime such as gangs and drugs, while looking for alternatives to arresting and incarcerating people in many other cases, he said.
However, the drop in crime can be possibly traced to another factor. In recent years, officers switched to writing tickets for minor offenses instead of making arrests.
Also, some prosecutors have stopped prosecuting small marijuana possession offenses. In 2011 there were 84,000 misdemeanor drug arrests. Last year there were less than 24,000. It naturally follows that if you have 60,000 less arrests the crime rate would decrease.
“The blueprint, I think is here,” Shea said. 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.”
Shea worked his way up the ranks over a 28-year NYPD career, from Bronx patrolman to chief of detectives. Bill de Blasio stated he was “dazzled” early on by Shea’s intellect and saw him as “the future of the NYPD.”
Of course, the selection of Shea did not come without criticism. Critics were concerned about a lack of transparency in the process and a continued lack of diversity in the department’s upper management. O’Neill’s second in command, Benjamin Tucker, who is black, said he was disappointed not to get the job.
Shea also has an internal morale issue to deal with, along with community resentment over how officers are disciplined, along with what information the department shares with the public.
The city’s largest police union has also accused NYPD leadership of abandoning officers amid a wave of attacks on police with everything from water to a metal chair. The union also criticized O’Neill and asked him to resign after he fired an officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner.
There has also been a rash of officer suicides this year, which led O’Neill to declare a mental health crisis and further criticism that the department had not done anything to help officers who may have been struggling with issues such as PTSD.
Department training was also questioned after two friendly fire incident deaths.
Shea’s success as commissioner will rest widely on crime statistics and the belief among residents and visitors that they are safe. New York City has had its homicide rate drop precipitously, especially compared to cities like Chicago. Last year, there were 295 homicides in New York.
More recently, however numbers in some categories has started to rise. In addition, there were two quadruple killings in October, attacks on senior citizens, and a brawl last week near Times Square where four men were injured. Some residents fear that it may be a return to the way things used to be.
If crime rates rise, Shea will be the one to get blamed. Giacolone said:
“It’s like a musical chair game of crime stats. Nobody wants to be without a chair when the music stops. Nobody wants to be there when this thing goes to pot, and that’s the way it’s looking.”
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