Chief Jeff Maddrey, the newly appointed head of the NYPD Community Affairs Bureau, tells Hamodia how New York City will fight crime and mend fences with communities.
The area around One Police Plaza looks like a post-apocalyptic zone.
On this late-July day, 12 hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the NYPD to dismantle the weeks-long “Occupy City Hall” protest encampment just steps from police headquarters, all that remain are empty streets, blocked off by barricades manned by police officers, and municipal buildings laced with graffitied slogans that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. A reporter exiting the City Hall subway station on this 92-degree day must pass through multiple police checkpoints, showing proofs of his interview appointment with the new Chief of Community Affairs, before eventually reaching the security booth at the headquarters of a police force that calls itself the best in the world, but is described by many now as demoralized and unable to use its full powers to fight growing crime in The Big Apple.
Late last month, in the midst of all the chaos — just after the riots and looting had subsided, but as shootings and murders were soaring, illegal fireworks were crackling over the night skies, and dueling allegations raged over police either being too reticent or too aggressive in fighting crime — Police Commissioner Dermot Shea shook up Department leadership, including appointing Chief Jeff Maddrey as head of the Community Affairs Bureau. Shea said the appointment of Maddrey, who was most recently commanding officer of Brooklyn North, would allow a “clean slate” for police-community relations.
“Trust is built slowly over time, and is lost very quickly,” the commissioner said in announcing the new appointments. “We in law enforcement realize that, and it’s up to us to fix it. It all starts with talking.”
On the evening before our interview, Maddrey and other police brass held an event in a Bedford-Stuyvesant park where a week earlier 1-year-old Davell Gardner had been killed in a shooting. The police officials and community leaders held a town-hall meeting in the park with residents to address gun violence.
“But not only did we have that discussion about gun violence,” he tells me, “we also brought out some good things, activities for the children, some food, stuff like that. We’ve been suffering through the pandemic. I’ve been out here in the community; there are people on long lines for food. Their children have been cooped up.”
A young mother in the playground that evening told the chief she’d been unable to celebrate her son’s recent birthday because she couldn’t take him anywhere due to the pandemic shutdown, and did not have money to buy him gifts. Maddrey gave the boy a PlayStation — just what he’d always wanted, “And he just really lit up,” recalls Maddrey. “So it was great just to be able to be a resource and help people who are down and out.”
One positive result of being a resource, and a crucial part of Maddrey’s job, is to “show the police in a good light.” Despite all the talk of tensions between police and certain communities, he says, “We do so many great things that get lost in the narrative.”
That narrative has largely centered on the undoing of New York City’s decades of achievements in crime fighting, and losing its hard-won and proudly worn moniker, “the safest big city in America.”
Between June 1 and July 21, there were 72 murders in the city, a 33% jump over the same period in 2019; and 382 shootings, more than two-and-a-half times the number of the year-ago period (though decreases in several other crime categories resulted in an overall 4.5% drop in total crimes in the seven major index categories).
Furthermore, complaints by protesters of police overaggression, and by the law-and-order crowd of an inadequate response to soaring crime, means almost everyone in this metropolis of 8.3 million people has some sort of opinion, usually less than positive, on the state of crime-fighting in New York City.
Asked for the cause of the crime spike, Maddrey replies, “I don’t have a true answer,” but then offers, “We’re suffering through a pandemic. We don’t know the frustrations that were brought by the pandemic. People lost loved ones, lost resources, jobs, things like that. We do see an uptick in gang violence, and we used a lot of resources dealing with the protests. So that may have been an opportunity for other things to happen when we were out there dealing with the protests.”
De Blasio has attributed the rise in crime to “dislocation” resulting from the pandemic, as well as a shutdown of the court system. But police brass and union leadership also point to certain criminal-justice reforms, such as a state law that took effect this year eliminating cash bail for most offenses, a new city “diaphragm law” that prohibits officers from sitting or kneeling on a suspect’s back or stomach during an arrest, and the release of prisoners from Rikers Island due to COVID.
There appear to be tensions between the mayor and NYPD brass over policing the city. Following rumors in early June of Shea’s resigning, the mayor and commissioner didn’t appear together at a press conference for more than a month. Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the highest uniformed officer, have been critical of some criminal-justice reforms advocated by de Blasio.
Maddrey won’t reply directly when I ask if there is a divide between the mayor and department leadership.
“I can’t answer that question,” he says. “I don’t sit in the room with the police commissioner, the chief of department and the mayor. So for me to make a supposition that there’s a divide, I don’t believe what I see on TV, I don’t believe what I read in the papers, I’d have to actually be in the room and actually see that there’s a problem.”
But when asked to comment directly on the criminal-justice reforms, Maddrey says he believes they do “play a factor” in the rising crime numbers, as “it’s very difficult” to police properly when arrestees are allowed right back on the streets without bail.
If someone has “been arrested for carrying a weapon multiple times [and] we can’t go to the judge and say that this is a danger factor and they should be kept in jail, then of course it’s going to be a problem. A person who’s doing burglaries who gets [immediately released] doesn’t come out and stop doing burglaries — they never had a chance to be rehabilitated, reformed, they never had a chance to be given any resources.”
On the new diaphragm law — which opponents argue was improperly rushed through the City Council in response to the death of George Floyd — Maddrey says, “I think we could have done a better job — as police, community, elected leaders, clergy — at sitting down at the table, really understanding the ramifications of the bill.”
“I think going forward in this city, dealing with police reforms, dealing with some of the issues and challenges that police and community have — even communities within communities — issues that we see, I think the best way that we’re ever going to resolve these things [is by everyone] coming to the table,” says Maddrey. “We have to sit down, have hard discussions, fair discussions, make sure we understand each other’s point of view, and do what’s best for everyone. We have to make sure that this city stays viable. We have to make sure that this city is livable. We have to make sure this city’s safe, so young children can walk up and down the street, ride their scooters and their bicycles in the street, and people are going to care for them and look after them.”
Heeding the calls of anti-police protesters, the city budget passed weeks ago “defunds” $1 billion from the NYPD, though much of the cuts are achieved by shifting services to other agencies and, characteristic of the fraught political times, opponents on the left have called the cuts inadequate.
“People have to really be careful what they ask for,” warns the new Chief of Community Affairs. “How do I do positive programming if there’s no funding for positive programming within the police? We have the capacity to go out here and do good things with young people, to do good things with seniors, so when we lose that funding, it hurts the positive part of this department and our ability to do great things.”
“I think it’s something that people really need to sit down and understand: When we do have an uptick in shootings, how do we put more police officers out in the street? It requires money, it requires funds. So we have to be really careful what we ask for, we have to really sit down and think about what we want and what we don’t want.”
The recent anti-police protests, spike in crime, police reforms and perceived restraining of police’s full powers, have all resulted in what police brass, union leadership, and rank-and file members describe as low morale in the department.
But the man tasked with overseeing police-community relations says “I don’t totally disagree” with reports of low morale at the department, but that a portion of it is attributable to media seeking to report controversy.
“A lot of the negative chatter is coming through the press,” says Maddrey, “whereas I’m out here on the ground talking to people, and there are so many people that are supporting the police. So this is my role, this is what I believe the police commissioner put me in this position to do: to get our officers to engage with our community, so they can see firsthand that the community does support them.”
Acknowledging “a little bit of a fractured relationship,” in certain communities, Maddrey says “We have to do our best to go there and extend our hand and try to mend some fences and do some positive programming together and help that community resolve the issues.” But he again references the previous evening’s park event, noting that not only can such programs improve police’s standing in the eyes of community members, but it can also show police, in firsthand interactions undistorted by media sensationalism, that they are by and large supported by the citizens they are tasked with protecting.
“Overwhelmingly, they said they support the police,” reports Maddrey. “There were so many people who were out there shaking our officers’ hands and supporting them, that after they left that event I’m pretty sure their hearts and their minds felt a little differently.”
While some communities complain of overpolicing, others allege that there is not enough: that the goal of minimizing police interactions with criminals has meant the city is headed back to the days of the early ’90s and an infamous TIME magazine cover “The Rotting of the Big Apple.”
Asked about allegations that the police were restrained from using the full force of their powers in dealing with the recent violent protests, Maddrey’s response is unequivocal. “I disagree with that,” he says. “I think people who challenged us and attacked us, we were able to do our job and we restrained them. We made plenty of arrests out there … we addressed looting, we addressed other crime conditions. And I think, overall, the majority of the peaceful protests, I think we met them with a peaceful police force.”
As the most violent protests were winding down last month, massive illegal fireworks displays started popping up at all hours of the night and morning, and police did not appear to do much to stop it. Following an outcry from citizens saying that they wanted a peaceful night’s sleep — including several hundred who showed up at Gracie Mansion honking horns and making a midnight ruckus, chanting at the mayor, “If we don’t sleep, you don’t sleep” — de Blasio created a taskforce to go after fireworks dealers, but not street users.
Maddrey says “absolutely not” when I ask if police were told not to go after street users.
“I know the police were out there doing their best to enforce it,” he says. “But it’s not an easy thing, you know, people run in the street, they light a firecracker, they run back on the sidewalk, so it’s not easy to catch them — and especially in a marked car, they see you coming from a good distance. So I think our officers tried their best out there,” but he acknowledges, “We just weren’t very successful.”
The NYPD, during the six-and-half years of the de Blasio Administration, has moved away from “broken-windows policing” and toward “community policing.” But Maddrey does not believe that community outreach necessarily comes at the expense of old-fashioned policing.
“There’s room for everything,” he says. “If we have to do a little old-fashioned crime fighting to address a condition, I think we have to do that. If we have to do things in a new way, a more inclusive way, a way where we get buy-in from the community, then I think it’s important to do that, too.
“We’re a department that has to explore all avenues to make sure we’re bringing the best resources, bringing the best ideas and the best practices to our communities. So we can’t have one way of thinking. We have to be able to sit down, understand everybody, look at all the alternatives and do what’s best to keep our police officers safe and increase public safety at the same time.”