Can James O’Neill change the NYPD with neighborhood policing?

Can James O’Neill change the NYPD with neighborhood policing?

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill is often described as a cop’s cop.It’s easy to see why. In his remarks at a …

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill is trying to change how New Yorkers perceive the police department. Can he repair the frayed police-community relationship?
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill is trying to change how New Yorkers perceive the police department. Can he repair the frayed police-community relationship? Photo Credit: Getty Images / Michael Krinke

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill is often described as a cop’s cop.

It’s easy to see why. In his remarks at a City and State conference on Wednesday, he mentioned the best time to “catch bad guys” who are on the run: 5 a.m., knocking on their doors.

He talked about ascending the ranks during his career, starting with subway patrol in the 1980s, changing cars every three stops in an attempt to establish a presence throughout the train.

The cop’s-cop reputation seems to have brought O’Neill some goodwill from the rank and file, but it has also shaped his view of community-police interactions. He’s not like his predecessor, William Bratton, the controversial and iconic figure who spent most of his career on the political side of policing. He speaks of the people he met on the beat when he was a patrol officer; or when he conducted community meetings as a precinct commander.

In one of those meetings, he recalled Wednesday, a Bronx pastor told him policing was “done to us and not with us.”

“If they’re not satisfied with the way we’re doing business,” O’Neill said, “then we need to change.”

That’s the idea behind “neighborhood policing,” a rejuggling of police priorities and strategies, this version of which has been credited to O’Neill; the strategy calls for some police officers to focus on small sections of precincts, getting to know local problems in a community rather than robotically answering 911 calls.

The idea is to change the way people interact with and think of police officers. They would know you better, you would know them better.

“Neighborhood coordination officers” assigned to the community can distribute business cards with their contact information. They focus on community affairs, while “sector officers” get to know a particular area and devote a third of their time to community outreach.

Something like this was tried in the 1990s, before falling victim to a lack of funding and changing priorities.

Is it working?

The NYPD is developing a survey system to ascertain community attitudes and O’Neill said Wednesday that “anecdotally, we’re doing well.” That’s likely true among people like clergy, local community leaders and business owners who attend police-community meetings or already have established connections with their precincts’ police.

But does it change police interactions with the types of people who feel the brunt of police attention in a “broken windows”-focused department — often young men of color?

That’s hard to do with a continued focus on quality-of-life crime disproportionately targeted at those young men.

O’Neill says that neighborhood policing is “primarily a crime-fighting model, make no doubt about it.” Such comments seem mostly intended to reassure the rank-and-file cops that the new philosophy isn’t an activist win and won’t move the department too far in the direction of social work.

The commissioner is in a tricky place in this political atmosphere. He struggles with the same problems other big-city police leaders do — keeping crime down, guarding against terrorism. His first full day in his new role was the Chelsea bombing in September.

But he’s also straddling a fine line in a post-Ferguson era. After a recent incident in the Bronx in which an officer shot and killed a naked, mentally ill woman wielding a bat, O’Neill said the department had “failed” in this incident. That drew political accolades, but angered the union that represents rank-and-file cops. To keep faith with the reformers, he returns again and again to neighborhood policing.

Will O’Neill change the culture of the NYPD?

If you listen to Mayor Bill de Blasio, neighborhood policing was the reason members of the city’s rank-and-file union got an extra boost in their back-pay contracts this week compared to the other police unions’ already settled deals. A union representative said cops are being asked to do more.

Are they? The program has been rolled out in about half the city’s precincts. In the places where it is rolled out, there are between nine and 11 “neighborhood coordination officers” and their supervisor. There can also be a few cars of the “sector officers” at once, depending on tour time. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple dozen. Precincts overall staffing varies, but a large one like the 75th in East New York has upwards of 400 officers.

Whether this program turns out to have radical effects remains to be seen.

More radical change may be on the way thanks to that new contract — the union agreed to drop a lawsuit opposing the much delayed rollout of body cameras, which are now scheduled to be on every rank-and-file officer by 2019. Plenty of questions on that front remain: How will the cameras change police behavior? What rules will be enacted concerning privacy concerns?

All of those and more will face O’Neill, the career officer now making decisions for the cop on the beat and the rest of the city.

AMNY Newsletter

Eat it. Drink it. Do it. Tackle the city, with our help.