Counter-terrorism, police brutality cases and suicide crisis shaped the O’Neill Era at NYPD

Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill announces the firing Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner. (File/Charles Eckert)

Over his three years as the NYPD’s top cop, outgoing Police Commissioner James O’Neill faced one challenge after another — including crises of homeland security and responses to allegations of police misconduct.

His tenure as commissioner began with a bang. On his first official day at the post in September 2016, the “Chelsea bomber,” Ahmad Rahimi, injured 30 people with pressure cooker explosives that detonated on Manhattan streets.

The following year, O’Neill also dealt with two other terrorist attacks on NYC  as commissioner in 2017: the ISIS Halloween truck attack which claimed the lives of eight people run over on the West Side Highway by Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov.

There was also the attempted Port Authority bombing—when Bangladeshi immigrant Akayed Ullah inadvertently detonated a pipe bomb in a Times Square subway passage, injuring himself and three others before being taken into NYPD custody.

Separately during his time, the commissioner made efforts towards amending what he identified as wrongdoings of the department’s past, especially against the LGBTQ community.

Earlier this year, O’Neill issued a formal apology to that community on the department’s behalf for its handling of the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

“I’m not an expert on what occurred at Stonewall,” O’Neill said in June. “But I do know that the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong. The actions were discriminatory and oppressive and for that, I apologize.”

It was also O’Neill’s responsibility to handle disciplinary actions against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for his fatal chokehold against Staten Island man Eric Garner while resisting arrest in 2014. 

After years of trial and litigation in the face of national media, O’Neill terminated Pantaleo from the department in August, causing a rift with a move the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, amNewYork has previously reported.

“I was determined to carry out my responsibility as Police Commissioner unaffected by public opinions demanding one outcome over another,” he said at the time of Pantaleo’s termination.

Adding to the strain, in 2019, the NYPD faced a different crisis: a sudden spike in police officer suicides. The commissioner worked with the city to bring about additional mental health programs for officers and public pleas that any officer in dire need seek help. 

O’Neill came out as an outspoken critic of the city’s recent vote towards a borough-based jail system aiming to replace Rikers Island. Despite his criticism, the de Blasio Administration supported the effort, which the City Council approved through legislation passed in October.

Days before announcing his retirement, O’Neill also took Governor Andrew Cuomo to task after Cuomo mentioned that subway crime was on the rise.

“We get about six major crimes per day and there are six million riders per day, so that is not a system that is out of control,” the former transit cop said, while noting that overall crime in New York is down during his tenure.

Alex Mitchell