NEW YORK (AP) – The police commissioner who led New York City away from controversial “broken windows” policies, oversaw continued drops in crime and leveraged his position to confront some of the darkest moments in the department’s complicated history announced Monday that he is retiring.
James O’Neill, 61, said he will leave next month for a job in the private sector. The career policeman has been in charge of the nation’s largest police department for more than three years, bringing a community-oriented philosophy that moved patrol officers out of their cars and onto the streets to interact more closely with residents.
Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea, a 28-year department member who started as a patrolman in the south Bronx, will be the new commissioner. Shea rose to prominence as the department’s statistical guru, and de Blasio said he is “one of the best-prepared incoming police commissioners this city has ever seen.”
“He knows this department inside and out,” de Blasio said. “He knows this city inside and out.”
O’Neill’s tenure as commissioner – which began with a pipe bomb blast on his first full day in office in September 2016 – came as the city continued to grapple with its place as a top terrorist target, as well as tensions between officers and the community.
“We’ve redefined in these last six years how we police this city,” Shea said at a news conference on the leadership change. “We have done what many thought was impossible. We have pushed crime down. We have reduced incarceration.”
O’Neill, 61, moved the department from a focus on the broken windows theory, which viewed low-level offenses as a gateway to bigger crimes, to a neighborhood policing model designed to give officers more time to walk around and interact with people in the communities they police.
He led the department’s response to a truck attack that killed eight people on a Manhattan bike path in 2017 and brought closure this summer to two of the NYPD’s lowest moments, the violent police raid at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in 2014.
In June, on the 50th anniversary of the LGBTQ uprising that followed the Stonewall raid, O’Neill called the police department’s actions “discriminatory and oppressive.”
In August, after five years of investigations and disciplinary hearings, O’Neill fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo for using a banned chokehold on Garner, whose dying words “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry against alleged police brutality.
O’Neill said that the decision weighed heavily on him, but that it wasn’t a factor in his decision to leave. Immediately after Pantaleo’s firing, the city’s largest police union called for O’Neill to resign, but the commissioner brushed that aside.
Asked in recent weeks about rumors of his retirement, he said he had the “best job in the world.”
“This job comes with a lot. It comes with a lot of pressure,” he said Monday. “This is all I have thought about for the last 38 months – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s all you think about, is keeping the people of this city safe, and it was an honor to serve.”
De Blasio’s sudden move to install Shea, raised in Queens by Irish immigrant parents, as O’Neill’s replacement was not without criticism. Tina Luongo, of the Legal Aid Society, said there should have been an open, transparent process with input from city residents.
Under Shea, Luongo said, the police department has expanded its database of alleged gang members – often black and Hispanic men and women – and codified expansive DNA collection practices.
“This will be more of the same, and our clients – New Yorkers from communities of color – will continue to suffer more of the same from a police department that prioritizes arrests and summonses above all else,” Luongo said in a statement.
Shea last year oversaw an overhaul of the special victims division, which deals with sex crimes, including the ouster of the chief in charge when Harvey Weinstein was arrested in 2018.
Under new chief Judith Harrison, the division has added several dozen more investigators, retrained staff and shifted how rape statistics are reported to the public. But some victim advocates called for Shea’s resignation, saying the changes aren’t enough.
“We hear the advocates. We’re not done,” Shea said. “Sexual assault survivors are of the utmost importance to us.”
O’Neill joined the NYPD as a transit officer in 1983 and spent more than three decades with the department before being appointed in September 2016 to replace broken windows proponent William Bratton as commissioner.
In that role, O’Neill led efforts to bolster community policing and repair the department’s relationship with minority communities that had complained about innocent black and Hispanic men being caught up in aggressive enforcement of minor crimes.
The past year has been particularly trying for O’Neill, with two police officers killed by friendly fire and a rash of suicides by police officers leading him to declare a mental health emergency.
Follow Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak