News & Politics

NYPD Commissioner to NYC Business Community: A Safer City Requires a Gentler Hand

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New York City is on track to register near-record-low crime numbers this year, according to New York police commissioner Jimmy O’Neill, who spoke this morning at a breakfast held at the tony New York Athletic Club overlooking Central Park.

The breakfast, hosted by Crain’s New York Business, was attended by members of the city’s commercial elite, an interest group that reliably advocates for the aggressive pursuit of law and order. As Crain’s publisher Jill Kaplan observed in her opening remarks, “Without a safe city, we really put our economy in peril.” O’Neill did his best to reassure his audience that there was no chance of slipping back to the high-crime disorder of 1970s and ’80s.

“The city is now safer, cleaner, and more welcoming than it was when I was a rookie, that’s for sure,” he said. “Over the past couple decades, major crime has plummeted 76.5 percent. Murders are down 82.5 percent and shootings are down 81 percent.” The result is an environment friendly to tourism and commerce, O’Neill said. “The safer we keep the city, the more people will want to come here and spend their time and money here.”

But O’Neill also argued that the NYPD’s relentless pursuit of even minor violations, long after crime had subsided, had come at a steep cost, and was a mistake. “We are crimefighters — that’s what we’re paid to do. In the early Nineties, we were allowed to do that,” he said. “As the city became safer, we needed to scale back a little bit and we didn’t, and I think that got us into a tremendous amount of trouble with communities all across New York City.”

The solution, O’Neill said, is a renewed focus on community policing and neighborhood policing. While those terms have been used to describe a wide variety of policing strategies, in O’Neill’s definition they involve a greater emphasis on individual officers making lasting personal connections with residents of the neighborhoods they police. In the old model, half the cops in a precinct at any given time were chasing 911 and 311 calls, and the others were working specific tasks like traffic or domestic violence, or low-level drug work.

“Cops have to get closer to the community,” O’Neill said. “In that model of policing, nobody had time to make any connection to anyone.” In the new order, O’Neill said, the NYPD has redrawn its administrative divisions to better conform to actual neighborhood boundaries, and officers are expected to be seen in the same neighborhood every day, with no more than 70 percent of their days devoted to responding to 911 calls.

Police also need to use more discretion in levying penalties, O’Neill said. “Enforcement is not just about writing summonses and locking people up,” he said, adding that cops should not be writing summonses for every person drinking on a stoop. “That’s not the way we operate.”

These cultural and policy shifts are taking hold, the commissioner assured the audience, albeit slowly. “It’s a huge organization. The ship is turning, I’d like it to turn a little faster,” O’Neill said. “If you’re a cop and you do something some way for twelve or fifteen years, it’s kind of hard to change the way you do business.” In the meantime, the police still have a trust problem; O’Neill said 30 percent of shooting victims refuse to cooperate with police investigators.

The commissioner touched on a range of other topics in the course of the breakfast as well. He praised the creation of the Strategic Response Group and Critical Response Command, two heavily armed units charged with addressing terrorist threats and controlling crowds and protests. Before the creation of those groups, “We had maybe 50 or 60 people who had access to long guns,” O’Neill said.  “Now with CRC and SRG, on each and every tour it’s a couple hundred people that have access to them.”

He also pushed back hard on a report published yesterday by DNAInfo which suggested that police officers don’t intervene in cases of public groping until they’ve observed someone do it three times. The story was “entirely inaccurate,” O’Neill said. “What you read in the paper isn’t always true.”

Asked about the ongoing  snarl of police protection surrounding Trump Tower in midtown, O’Neill predicted that the block of 56th street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, is “probably going to remain frozen.” The security problem isn’t going away. Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counter-terrorism John Miller visited Washington last week, trying to get federal reimbursement for the estimated $35 million the city will have spent on the operation by inauguration day. So far, Congress has only agreed agreed to pay about a fifth of that amount. “We’re going to have to keep going back to make sure we’re fully reimbursed,” O’Neill said, “because it does have an impact we’re taking resources from around the city to make sure we keep [Trump Tower] secure.”

Speaking to reporters afterward, the commissioner confirmed that Richard Haste, the NYPD officer who shot unarmed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham to death in Graham’s bathroom in 2012, will face a departmental disciplinary hearing in January. Haste had been the subject of a bungled and abortive criminal indictment in the Bronx and remains on the force. Another officer and a police sergeant also involved in the killing will face separate disciplinary proceedings.