New NYPD Commissioner Led Shift Toward 'Community Policing'

Aug 5, 2016
Originally published on August 5, 2016 11:00 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The nation's largest police department is getting a new boss. James O'Neill takes over as commissioner of the New York City Police Department next month. This changing of the guard is happening at a critical moment for American policing. And O'Neill is notably the architect of the NYPD's community policing effort, intended to improve relations between the police and communities of color. NPR's Joel Rose went to the Bronx to find out how that program is going.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: James O'Neill honed his approach to neighborhood policing a decade ago when he was commanding officer of the 44th Precinct in the Bronx. It's a big working-class precinct that includes Yankee Stadium. It's mostly Latino and black, lots of immigrants. O'Neill got high marks from community leaders.

VANESSA GIBSON: You really felt like he had a sympathetic ear and understood your perspective.

ROSE: Vanessa Gibson represents the area on the city council, where she chairs the committee on public safety.

GIBSON: I've always found him to be someone who really has the ability to bridge together a lot of the communities from all different backgrounds and ethnicities and someone who you could really talk to. Like, you didn't have to worry about him always being on the defense.

ROSE: O'Neill was born into a big Irish family in Brooklyn. He got his start as a transit cop in 1983, working the overnight shift at a time when riding the subway after dark was a lot riskier than it is today.

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JAMES O'NEILL: You learn quickly how to be a cop, how to be aware of your surroundings, how to navigate the maze of subway lines but most importantly, how to talk to every type of person imaginable.

ROSE: O'Neill rose through the ranks to become chief of department. One of his signature achievements is the NYPD's latest effort at community policing. The idea is that officers know the residents of the neighborhoods they're policing and vice versa. At a press conference this week, O'Neill promised to expand the program as commissioner.

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O'NEILL: The neighborhood policing program is the heart and soul of what I want for this great city. It would be better for the cops, and it would be far better for the community if they know who is actually out there protecting and serving them every day.

ROSE: One of the first precincts to try out the NYPD's new approach - the 44th, O'Neill's old precinct in the Bronx.

CARY GOODMAN: We're one of the pilot precincts here. We began with the program in January.

ROSE: And what are you noticing? Is it making a difference?

GOODMAN: It is making a difference.

ROSE: Cary Goodman directs the 161st street business improvement district. It's a major commercial strip that connects Yankee Stadium and the county courthouse. Goodman says local merchants were thrilled to hear that more police would be walking the beat.

GOODMAN: They've made their rounds through the various civic organizations and businesses, stopping in here or there, but they haven't been able to significantly be a sort of a visible presence.

ROSE: One feature of community policing is that officers and residents are supposed to know each other by name. Bronx resident Chantel Jackson thinks that's a good idea, but she does not see it happening.

CHANTEL JACKSON: I wouldn't go that far yet, to say that there is a first name basis here or I'm noticing the same officers responding. I wouldn't go that far.

ROSE: Jackson lives in Concourse Village, a high-rise apartment complex in the neighborhood. Jackson says there's a lot of lingering tension between police and the community, especially young men of color.

JACKSON: There's a belief, like, don't trust the police officer because of what they've seen happen to maybe their brothers and uncles and things of that nature. So is that change - has that changed? I haven't seen it.

ROSE: The effort to build that trust may have suffered a setback recently. Last Saturday, State Assemblyman Michael Blake was attending a party at a public housing project just outside the 44th Precinct. An argument broke out, and police put a woman in handcuffs.

MICHAEL BLAKE: So I go back over to try to find out what's happening, and within seconds I'm in a bear hug. I'm being taken in and tossed toward the gate to my left by an officer.

ROSE: Blake, who is black, says he was quickly released when another officer seemed to recognize him. Blake filed a formal complaint against the NYPD. He says the incident reveals the limits of the department's community policing strategy.

BLAKE: Something about it is not working right now. There's still the perception where black and brown men are seen as threats. Like, we can't ignore that reality.

ROSE: Blake demanded an apology from outgoing NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, which he has not gotten. But a few days after the incident, Blake did get a phone call from the incoming commissioner, James O'Neill.

BLAKE: Chief O'Neill, on probably the busiest day of his life of learning - he was about to become the commissioner of NYPD, called me back that night to say we need to talk. We need to engage. This is a moment for us to build.

ROSE: Blake says that's the only way the department's experiment in community policing is going to work. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.