Incoming police commissioner James O'Neill to expand 'neighborhood policing plan'

Wednesday, August 3, 2016
James O'Neill faces new community policing goals
Darla Miles reporting live

NEW YORK -- The career cop picked to lead America's largest police department is embracing a throwback strategy to repair the deep rift that has opened between officers and the public. He wants patrol officers to get to know people on their beat on a first-name basis.

James "Jimmy" O'Neill was introduced Tuesday at City Hall as the next commissioner of the New York Police Department.

When he takes over next month, O'Neill will inherit challenges that vexed his well-known predecessor, William Bratton, who announced that he is quitting to take a job with a corporate consulting firm.

Crime statistics in the city have never been better, but officer morale is an issue as is the level of distrust between officers and minorities, especially black New Yorkers.

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In announcing O'Neill's selection, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would be tasked with expanding a "neighborhood policing plan" the department first unveiled last year amid tensions stirred by the police chokehold death of Eric Garner and the subsequent ambush slaying of two NYPD officers by a suicidal gunman out for revenge.

O'Neill, who has been with the NYPD for his entire career, said the program draws on some of the same lessons he learned in 1983 when he was a rookie transit officer patrolling a subway system ravaged by crime. Good cops, he said, learn "how to talk to every type of person imaginable."

It calls for officers to spend more time out of their patrol cars introducing themselves to shop owners and community members so they can collaborate on making the city safer. As part of the outreach, specialized "neighborhood coordinating officers" even pass out their cellphone numbers.

"Knowing who your police officers are, especially what their names are," he said, "is one way to strengthen the bonds that exist in many places and bridge the divide where it doesn't."

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New York has tried various iterations of that idea over the decades.

Under former Democratic Mayor David Dinkins, the department put more cops on foot patrols, asked beat officers to focus on long-term solutions rather than quick-fix arrests and recruited tenants as informants against drug dealers in their buildings in the early 1990s.

While the program earned praise in then-President Bill Clinton's 1994 State of the Union address, internal police memos emerged portraying it as lax and ineffective.

Bratton, in his first tour as police commissioner under Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, shifted the department's focus toward cracking down on "quality-of-life" crime as part of a theory that aggressively going after urban annoyances like vandalism and subway fare evasion would reverse a societal decline.

De Blasio, who worked in Dinkins' administration, said Tuesday the new "neighborhood policing" will be more full-fledged and deliver on "a strategy we have never fully achieved."

Some civil liberties activists and others cautioned on Tuesday that the new emphasis on neighborhood policing is little more than repackaging a limited concept.

"Having more officers in the neighborhood and having people know each others' names has nothing to do with whether people are going to be held accountable for brutality," said Joo-Hyun Kang, the director of Communities United for Police Reform, a group that advocates for changing police practices.

And in a tough world, friendliness only goes so far.

Officers can be trained to bring "softer skills" to resolving problems, but "they're not social workers, they're not camp counselors - they're law enforcement," Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Tuesday.

"You can be nice to people, but you can't be nice to everybody," he said.

In Harlem on Tuesday, black residents said they liked the idea, but expressed skepticism.

"I don't think he's gonna do any better," said Wayne Newton, a 51-year-old barber from the Bronx. He recounted how his 18-year-old son was recently stopped and questioned by police for playing "Pokemon Go" in a Bronx park.

Neter Rhoden, 14, said he would appreciate a friendly "hello," from a police officer now and again, but is still upset about a time an officer held his arm behind his back while questioning him in the street.

"They could be nicer," he said.

By all accounts, O'Neill is diving in headfirst, giving out his personal cellphone number to advocates who work with at-risk New Yorkers in rough city neighborhoods.

Bratton, 68, will be winding down a law enforcement career that had stops as chief in Boston and Los Angeles, as well as two stints as commissioner in New York.

He brought a prominence and political savvy to the nation's largest police department that equipped him to deal with outsized expectations. His brash style - which doomed his first stint as commissioner under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani - went unabated under de Blasio, as evidenced Tuesday in his description of de Blasio's reaction when he invited the mayor into his office and broke the news that he was leaving the NYPD.

"After I picked him up off the floor and got him on my couch," he quipped, "we had a two-hour conversation about where I was going and why."

By comparison, O'Neill is admired within the department, but unknown on the national stage.

Associated Press writers Jake Pearson and Ezra Kaplan contributed to this report.