The night before James P. O’Neill took over as the New York City police commissioner, he went on a subway ride with his boss, William Bratton, as part of a final inspection run. Afterward, the thirsty and hungry former transit cops ducked into Neary’s pub on East 57th Street.
Amid the cozy dark-wood furnishings and photos of politicians, O’Neill and Bratton had a final meal of pork chops as they waxed nostalgic about their careers. O’Neill was to take over the next day, Sept. 16, as the city’s 43rd police commissioner while Bratton would ride away to a lucrative job in private industry.
It was a calm moment before the storm. Forty-eight hours later O’Neill found himself facing his first challenge as police commissioner. A pressure cooker bomb had exploded in Chelsea, injuring 31 people and spreading new fears in a city on guard against terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The way O’Neill directed the NYPD after the bombing provided an early glimpse of how the department would be carefully crafted in his style during his first 100 days in charge.
While not a celebrity like Bratton, O’Neill’s approachable style has impressed subordinates, police department observers say. When a baby started crying during one of his speeches, O’Neill got laughs saying the noisy kid reminded him of his days changing diapers.
The explosion on the night of Sept. 17 and the quick arrest of suspect Ahmad Khan Rahimi served as a formidable test for O’Neill as the NYPD’s new boss. The quick reaction of O’Neill’s department and the FBI, as well as his hands-on presence at the Chelsea crime scene that night showed many that the NYPD had not missed a beat.
The smooth transition was on display in the weeks that followed. O’Neill dealt with the in-the-line of duty killing of NYPD Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo. He oversaw efforts to protect the city in November amid warnings about a possible terrorist attack the day before the presidential election. Afterward, O’Neill faced the challenge of guarding President-elect Donald Trump’s Manhattan home at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
In terms of crime fighting, the changeover to O’Neill has been just about seamless. With 1,300 additional cops aided by new technology, the city flirtedin 2016 with its second lowest homicide numbers in modern history and could see a drop below 1,000 shootings for the first time in recent history.
“The crime data couldn’t be better,” said Richard Aborn, head of the nonprofit Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. “He has done all this without much upheaval in the department, which is remarkable.”
Noted author and police historian Thomas Repetto, referring to the troubling violence in places like Chicago, said O’Neill gets initial high marks for his crime-fighting approach.
“He has done a pretty good job containing crime, especially when you consider what is happening in other cities,” Repetto said.
Bratton went even further in his praise of O’Neill and the NYPD.
“New York is truly showing up as a national model,” Bratton told Newsday a few days ago.
As chief of department and the highest uniformed member of the NYPD, O’Neill was one of two candidates Mayor Bill de Blasio had to consider as Bratton’s successor. The other candidate, Benjamin Tucker, was Bratton’s first deputy commissioner and his civilian right arm. De Blasio’s eventual choice of O’Neill was a decision grounded in the new commissioner’s role as the prime architect of the NYPD’s emerging neighborhood policing strategy, some police experts said.
One of the big questions when Bratton announced his decision to leave was how much of the leadership team he had assembled would stay. So far, most of the big names have remained, although Repetto thinks over time some will exit.
The continuity of leadership has allowed O’Neill to ramp up his neighborhood policing plan, something heartily endorsed by de Blasio. The evolving strategy is seen by O’Neill as a way the NYPD can repair relationships with minority communities alienated by prior stop, question and frisk practices while continuing to keep the focus on reducing crime.
O’Neill was not available do a sit-down interview with Newsday but at a recent Crain’s business forum he contrasted his community strategy, where cops attempt to establish deeper relationships with residents, with how officers had previously spent most of their time responding to 911 calls.
“Neighborhood policing is another way of doing business,” O’Neill said at the forum.
As O’Neill has repeatedly explained over recent months, the new policing model, which is up and running in about half of the city precincts, has the same cops in patrol cars stationed in the same neighborhood sector as a way of getting the officers closer to the communities.
Another overlay will be two neighborhood coordinating officers as supervisors. Cops will have the chance to spend 30 percent of their day responding to 911 calls and the rest of the time dealing with other important issues as they come up, O’Neill said.
“The best part about this is that now we have ownership: ‘If I don’t take care of it today, it is there tomorrow and I have to face the people,’” the new police commissioner said recently.
New Chief of Department Carlos Gomez said NYPD statistics in the commands where neighborhood policing is in place show overall crime down 2.8 percent compared to 2015, with homicides falling by three percent and shootings and robberies eight-percent lower.
“They’re establishing relationships, more contacts and building the trust,” Gomez said of officers.
Going forward into 2017, O’Neill has said he plans to survey community and department-wide reaction to the neighborhood policing model, which could justify even more money for additional cops, according to Bratton.
In the long term, Aborn said, O’Neill and the NYPD will have to develop new ways of measuring the strategy’s effectiveness beyond crime statistics and anecdotal reports.
Although Aborn said that so far, the rank-and-file and the public trust O’Neill, that feeling has not been universal.
After an NYPD sergeant shot and killed a 66-year-old mentally ill Bronx woman in October, O’Neill and de Blasio criticized police actions. Those remarks got immediate blow back from Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeant’s Benevolent Association who said O’Neill was mirroring de Blasio’s sentiments and unfairly prejudging the officer’s actions. Because of that, cops have not been overly impressed with O’Neill, Mullins said.
Yet, Roy Richter, head of the Captain’s Endowment Association, believes O’Neill’s personal style, said to be based on fairness, directness and honesty, is working well within the NYPD.
Prof. Franklin Zimring of Univeristy of California, Berkeley School of Law, a noted criminologist, said that criticism of O’Neill and his ties to de Blasio is more in the line of political gossip than an issue of substance. This is especially true when there are no major policing or crime crises in the city, Zimring said.
“No news is good news,” noted Zimring, referring to New York’s low crime levels.
However, Repetto believes that the city is always just one step away from another tests of its policing strategy.
“You never know what the terrorists are going to do,” he said.