The resignation this week of New York City Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill comes amid growing tension over the direction of policing in America’s biggest city. In New York City, a variety of grassroots groups have begun questioning the basic legitimacy of using police to manage mental health calls, the sex work industry, homelessness in the subways, and drugs. Just last week in Brooklyn, thousands protested an increase in the number of transit police, along with increasingly aggressive policing, amid declining transit services, and they did so from an explicitly police abolitionist perspective. At the same time, police remain resentful of and resistant towards accountability efforts.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio inherited a police department facing two major crises. The first was a department accused of widespread over-policing: Hundreds of thousands of “stop and frisk” encounters, thousands of low-level “broken windows” arrests, and the overall trend of turning every problem in poor communities over to the police to manage. The second and related problem was one of police misconduct in the form of excessive use of force, abusive and demeaning behavior, and a near total lack of transparency or accountability. These problems were compounded by a police rank-and file that denied the legitimacy of either concern and consistently resisted all efforts to reduce the city’s reliance on police or to hold them accountable.
It was into this political maelstrom that James O’Neill stepped when he took over as police commissioner from Bill Bratton in September of 2016. Bratton had overseen some major shifts in the scope of police activity. Stop-and-frisks went from 600,000 in 2010 to about 12,000 in 2016 and misdemeanor arrests were also reduced significantly, despite the mayor’s rhetorical commitment to broken-windows policing. O’Neill was tasked with continuing these trends and doing something about the quality of police interactions as well.
In the wake of the police killing of Eric Garner in 2014, the department undertook several new strategies to improve the quality of police interactions with the public. The first was the use of de-escalation training, designed to give officers more tools to manage situations without resorting to high levels of force. The second was the role out of a new form of “neighborhood policing” in which officers were tasked with getting to know the community better through beat patrols and increased police-community meetings. The goal was to improve relations so that local officers could engage in more proactive “problem-oriented” policing—which is to say, policing that attempts to come up with targeted strategies to resolve recurring problems rather than just responding to each radio call as a one-time issue.
These efforts were both based on what is known as a “procedural justice” model of police reform, which rests on the premise that if we can improve the quality of police interactions with the public, then communities will come to have more respect for and trust in the police, allowing police to more effectively enforce the law and ensure community safety.
But this is a false premise. The problems of police misconduct are deeply embedded in the mission of policing. While the lowest-level interactions have been reduced, police continue to wage a war on drugs, gangs, disorder, and terror, and those wars are going to be waged in a confrontational way. And anyone who resists those wars (even passively), like Eric Garner, will be subjected to escalation, not de-escalation, regardless of how much training is conducted. In pursuing these policies, O’Neill both alienated the rank-and-file, which viewed a lot of these policies as political pandering, and much of the public, which continued to experience abusive policing.
The problems with neighborhood policing are no different. Despite a lot of talk about community empowerment and accountability, this and other forms of community policing are inherently problematic. They are based on the idea that the community should bring their problems to the police to solve. But police have the wrong tools for solving these problems. They have guns and handcuffs, not affordable housing, youth jobs, or mental health services. Three years ago, I asked the NYPD to provide me with examples of neighborhood police officers solving community problems without the use of traditional police powers—and I’m still waiting.
The area that has been even more challenging for department leaders to solve has been police accountability. In the five years since Eric Garner’s death, three developments have occurred. First, the department has been given body cameras; second, Daniel Pantaleo was fired this past August, after a five-year process; and third, the de Blasio administration embraced a narrow reading of a state law, allowing the NYPD to shield all misconduct actions against officers from public view.
These efforts have done little to satisfy the communities subjected to both abusive and over-broad policing. The introduction of body cameras and the firing of Pantaleo has done little to restore trust in the NYPD, not the least because the NYPD’s own policy on body cameras, released last month, makes clear that they will be used primarily to protect officers from claims of abuse and to gather evidence against people. At the same time, the failure to reform the law shielding police officers from public scrutiny has heightened public distrust for the police.
Meanwhile, even these minor changes to policing are being virulently opposed by NYPD rank-and-file. Officers widely viewed the firing of Pantaleo as politically motivated and unjust, and channeled their outrage into a work slowdown much like the one they organized in early 2015, after protests erupted across the city following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo. It was, in fact, it was the reaction to Pantaleo’s firing, which the Sergeant’s union described as a betrayal of “the entire law enforcement profession,” that may have pushed O’Neill to resign.
“Like any coward, Commissioner O’Neill chose to run off before the entire empire falls,” Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins said in a press release celebrating O’Neill’s resignation and blaming him for an increase in police deaths, higher crime rates, and broken morale, because of policies to dial back low-level policing. “Those of us who are truly committed to the NYPD and people of New York City are now left to deal with the tremendous damage inflicted upon the city by him and an out-of-touch mayor.”
O’Neill leaves office having achieved no real improvements in police transparency, accountability, or behavior. Instead, he leaves his successor, NYPD insider Dermott Shea, with a host of unresolved issues and a hostile workforce committed to resisting change.