Serving as commissioner of the largest police force in the nation is never an easy job, but Dermot Shea has had it harder than some others.
Shea took office in December 2019 — just as a state bail-reform law was being implemented, which some would blame for a concurrent crime spike; the COVID pandemic was about to curtail the court system; and the city, as the rest of the nation, would soon see massive anti-police protests, which at times degenerated into riots and looting, following the May death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody in Minneapolis. And the Big Apple would experience a summer of shootings and murders at a level unseen since the mid-1990s.
But Shea, 51, who began his career as a cop in the Bronx in 1991, and previously served as the Chief of Detectives, Chief of Crime Control Strategies, and Deputy Commissioner of Operations, isn’t asking for anyone’s sympathy.
“You can’t control the hands that are dealt on the table; you just got to do what you can to keep moving forward,” the commissioner says, in an interview with Hamodia in his office at One Police Plaza. “It’s a good job. It’s a rewarding job,” and a “tremendous honor,” though he acknowledges, “It’s been an interesting year, for sure.”
It has been months since any New Yorker has uttered the refrain “safest big city in America,” a slogan proudly used by mayors and police commissioners since the Giuliani era to the Big Apple’s low crime rates.
“We had a very good run for a number of years here and there’s still a lot of good work going on every day,” Shea says, “but the baseline has been upset, in many ways.”
Through September 20, murders have risen 38.6% in New York in 2020, compared with the same period last year, and shooting incidents have risen 93.6%. Though those two crime categories have received the most media coverage, burglary and auto theft have soared as well (41.6% and 62.6%, respectively).
‘I Told You So’
Asked for his opinion on the cause of the crime spike, the commissioner fires off a firm I-Told You-So about the criminal-justice reform law.
“People don’t like my answer, but it’s the answer, unfortunately. We started out last December and January, and we told you what was going to happen. And it’s happened. That law that was passed was well-intentioned, but it had catastrophic effects on people’s quality of life.”
The bill, which passed last year after Democrats had taken control of both houses of the state Legislature and took effect in January, is commonly known as the “bail-reform law” for having eliminated cash bail for most offenses. (The bill was subsequently amended to allow for bail in more cases, which went into effect this July.) But in the commissioner’s view, that is an inaccurate description for a bill containing other dreadful elements.
“People don’t even know what the law is. There are so many pieces to what that law encapsulated. That law changed the fact that we can’t put people into the system and get arraigned — you have to give them Desk Appearance Tickets. That has nothing to do with bail, but it’s in the ‘bail-reform law.’ Turning victims’ information over, and witnesses’ information over, within 15 days. And now you hear stories that people don’t want to cooperate as frequently, and you wonder why. We know exactly why: people are literally coming in and talking to prosecutors after we’re ready to close a shooting case and the prosecutor says, ‘I have to give your name over to the defense. I can ask that it’s redacted, but I can’t guarantee it.’ And people are, literally, we’ve had them walk right out of the room.”
While some supporters of the bail-reform law have denied that a significant number of people arrested and let out of jail have re-offended, the commissioner says, “You can debate that,” but that those arguments miss the point.
“It’s not about who got out of jail. It’s about who’s not going into jail. The law was designed to suppress the population of jails and prisons, and it’s extremely effective, and you have 40% to 50% cuts [in the jail population] now. So, my credit goes off to who crafted it, because they were very effective, but, unfortunately, now we’re dealing with the repercussions.
“Just take a look at gun offenses: when you have 170 people arrested in a week, and 140 to 150 of them are right back on the street. And the advocates who crafted the law will write into the paper and say, ‘Well, you can still get bail; gun arrests have nothing to do with that bill.’ But they forget the point, and they mislead the public with the point, that bail now has to be the most affordable method.”
While acknowledging that bail reform was a “well-intentioned” effort to “level the playing field,” Shea argues, “ ‘Level the playing field’ means equal justice whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, or anything else. ‘Level the playing field’ isn’t, ‘Open the doors and let half of the population out.’ ”
The New York Times reported in August that it had obtained a confidential analysis of police data, conducted by city officials but not released to the public, which said that of nearly 2,000 people who in July had open gun cases and were allowed to go home while awaiting trial, only about 40 of them were arrested on another weapons charge while they were out.
But Shea believes this is an instance of media cherry-picking, where they are given statistics and “will take one sentence out, and depending on what the story is they want to write and use the one sentence.”
So what, in the commissioner’s view, is the story?
“There is no consequence for carrying a gun right now in New York City,” he replies, pointing to “the length of time that it’s taking to go to trial,” “the fact that you’re not being held on bail waiting for that trial,” and “the reoccurrence incidents.”
Ultimately, though, the commissioner’s biggest problem with the bail law is not that of cash bail.
“We would make the argument that you could almost eliminate cash bail — but you need to give judges, in my opinion, the discretion to keep people in jail when they’re a danger. And you see it play out every day, unfortunately, where that doesn’t happen and then they reoffend.
“There are a number of individuals that are certainly worried about the rights of the accused. But I think we need to balance it a little more with the rights of the victims.”
‘You’d Have to Ask the Mayor’
The bail-reform bill, though a state law, is one of a number of criminal-justice reforms supported by Mayor Bill de Blasio, yet sharply criticized by Shea and other police brass — sometimes at press conferences as the mayor and police officials sit side by side.
I ask, “Is it fair to say that there’s some difference of opinion between you and the mayor when it comes to policing the city?”
The commissioner replies, “I don’t know if I would phrase it that way.”
“So how would you phrase it?”
“I think there are many things that we agree with. Do any two individuals agree on everything? I don’t know if that’s true, either. I think we have a good relationship, though.”
At a CompStat meeting in July, Shea said, (as seen on leaked video obtained by the Daily News), “So many systems of government are literally cowards, and won’t stand up for what’s right, and failing at every possible measure to be leaders. And they throw it onto the backs of the men and women of this police department, and curse them with one hand and then blame them with the other. How dare they.”
The commissioner declines my invitation to elaborate on whom he was referring to.
In early June, a period of heavy anti-police protests and riots, there were rumors that Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, were resigning; according to Vanity Fair, Shea had disagreed with the mayor over the arrest of an officer who was recorded pushing a female protester to the ground.
Asked if there was any truth whatsoever to the rumors — whether he’d been thinking of or discussed resigning — the commissioner says, “No. None.”
Shea had been a regular participant at the daily virtual press conferences de Blasio has held with a rotation of city officials during the coronavirus pandemic. But after the resignation rumors, the commissioner didn’t appear at the mayor’s press conference for more than a month, amid presumed tensions between the mayor and police.
Asked at the press conferences why Shea had stopped appearing, de Blasio generally deflected, noting that the conferences had a rotation and not every official appeared every day.
When I ask Shea whether his absence from the press conferences was due to disagreements over policing, the commissioner replies, “Absolutely not.”
“What was the reason?”
“You’d have to ask the mayor. If I get asked to go to the City Hall press conferences, I do. Perhaps it was other things, you know, going on; that’s certainly possible as well.”
“But you were not invited?”
“If I was invited, I would be there. I’ll tell you that.”
When the Black Lives Matter protests began in late May, de Blasio said on WNYC, “I really believe that the NYPD knows how to handle protests and respect whoever is protesting, but I want to see a light touch because people are undeniably angry for a reason.” As the protests quickly devolved into riots and looting, some law-and-order advocates pointed to statements like these as evidence that police were restrained from quelling the violence.
I ask whether there was a directive that the NYPD not use its full powers to police the protests. The commissioner replies, “We always try to use the lightest touch. That’s literally built into our policies and procedures, when you’re talking about use of force and de-escalation and things of that nature. I will say, [it was an] incredibly difficult time. It was difficult from day one. It was different from day one — much more dangerous, much more volatile. But that did not start from the side of the Police Department — that started from the side of antagonizers. I won’t say ‘protesters,’ because we actually like protesters, and the right to peacefully protest and the right to assemble. We defend that right every day, and have for decades. What I’m referring to, though, is anarchists, people that come here for the sole reason to incite. So it was tough right from the start. In terms of being held back, I would not say that. But it certainly was a challenging time.”
As evidence that police did not allow rioters to run amok, Shea notes that hundreds of arrests were made, but “we ran into circumstances, quite literally, sometimes, where we’re arresting somebody, bringing him in, having to let him go, and then we’re arresting him again in a couple hours. That is not conducive to public safety, but that’s the reality of sometimes what we’re up against now.”
While conservatives complained of inadequate policing, progressives alleged that the NYPD was over-aggressive. Asked what he thinks of how the protests were policed, the commissioner replies wryly, “In one 10-hour period we could be accused of being too heavy-handed and then we’re also accused [of] not being forceful enough. And it’s a special day in my life when those two things are said by the same person in the same day — you know, maybe we’re doing something right if we’re getting accused of both” — an apparent reference to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who, on June 1, said that some NYPD actions during the protests “exacerbated the anger” against police, but the next day, after a night of massive looting, alleged that the NYPD “did not do their job.”
As the heaviest protests were ending, illegal fireworks displays suddenly began booming across the city, at all hours of the night, which police appeared to make no effort to stop. Eventually, (a day after several hundred protesters gathered for a midnight ruckus outside Gracie Mansion, chanting, “If we don’t sleep, you don’t sleep”) de Basio announced a program to go after the suppliers of illegal fireworks, but street use was never targeted.
Some New Yorkers viewed this as part of a pattern in which officers are told not to crack down on criminal activity.
Once again, Shea says, “There was absolutely no [such] directive,” but believes there may be another reason why certain criminal activity soared around the time of the protests.
“From March, until literally George Floyd happened, people were cooped up inside,” the commissioner says. “All of a sudden, overnight, you had thousands and thousands and thousands of people marching in the streets,” as the mayor had given the Black Lives Matter protesters exclusive permission to violate the pandemic-related ban on large gatherings.
“And out of that came this, just, explosion of, no pun intended, human emotion and other things, where we saw a lot of things that we haven’t seen in a while, and, gradual steps back to normalcy.”
I ask the commissioner whether he believes the increase may be attributable to this overall perception, right or wrong, that police were not cracking down on crime.
“It’s all of that and other factors,” the commissioner replies, listing specifically the bail reform and court closures.
In discussing the crime increase during the past few months, Shea and de Blasio have both repeatedly pointed to what they deem the closure of the court system during the COVID pandemic.
Shea says, “We’re eagerly waiting for the courts to open up again. I hear that they’re open; that’s news to me. Because we have a line of cases ready to proceed.”
In July, New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote a letter to de Blasio, arguing that “contrary to your assertions, the criminal courts in New York City are not, and have never been, closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” saying that the courts had implemented a virtual system.
Defense-attorney groups have argued that the court closure has actually resulted in more people being in jail, because those arrested fo
r felonies now don’t have a right to a speedy grand-jury hearing. But Shea calls that notion “preposterous.”
“Just take a look at the jail populations,” the commissioner says. “Everything comes back to the number of people that are in jail. In terms of going in jail without a grand jury, there was an ability … to do those preliminary hearings. We have thousands and thousands and thousands of cases in Brooklyn alone, where they were just deferred. Meaning, we’re not even arraigning these individuals. Now, if you get to serious cases, [the district attorneys] had to make a determination, do they want to do a preliminary hearing. And there are reasons sometimes that they don’t want to, because they have to make known a good bit of the evidence where they wouldn’t have to ordinarily.
“I love the defense attorneys, they have a job to do, but show me the next defense attorney that says, ‘My client’s guilty.’ They have a job to do and they’re doing it — and they’re doing it very well. But I would make the argument that one of society’s basic premises is you have to keep people safe, and having a functioning court system that holds people accountable is right near the top of that list, and I think we dropped the ball on this one.”
Outbreak or Prison Break?
Officials have also blamed the crime spike on the release of many Rikers Island inmates during the pandemic over fears of contagion. Shea says he has “mixed” feelings on the release. He understood the need to make “difficult decisions” due to fears over an outbreak. However, he says, “I think there is no question that people used that situation to advance agendas that existed well before we ever heard of COVID — specifically about ending incarceration, freeing people up from Rikers Island, close Rikers Island, and everything in between.”
As crime has soared and anti-police protests have been a daily occurrence across the country, police budgets have been cut. Mayor Bill de Blasio, after initially expressing hesitation, agreed to protesters’ demands to trim the NYPD budget by $1 billion. (Police critics note that much of that money was actually diverted to other departments to perform functions that were simultaneously removed from the NYPD along with the budget cut — yet another instance of de Blasio being criticized by the Right for allegedly being anti-police, and from the Left for not being sufficiently anti-police.)
During some of the time periods with the highest shootings and murders, gun arrests were way down as well (they’ve since gone back up) and 911 response times were longer. Shea has in the past angrily rejected notions of an intentional slowdown by a disgruntled police force. But he says that the slowdown is also a result of attrition, as many officers have chosen to retire, which is tied to budget cuts reducing police overtime.
“You come into post-George Floyd and into the summer, where you have serious attrition — we’re down anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 cops. On top of that, all the overtime that was cut. So now you have on a given weekend night in the summer, upwards of thousands of cops less on the street, plus the attrition. So when you say that arrests were down, and specifically gun arrests are down, there’s reason for it.”
Shea attributes the massive attrition levels to the anti-police climate and defund movement, “which is related to that.
“I think it was a tough time, still is, to be in law enforcement, in this line of work. There’s always a supply of people that have the ability to retire, and some of them took stock of the current environment and made a personal decision for themselves to leave. That, coupled with significant cuts in overtime, which would have the ability then to affect, going forward, pensions. So I think those were probably the two driving factors.”
Police brass and union leadership have said morale is low in the Department. The commissioner tells me, “It’s certainly one of the tougher times.”
When I ask if the low morale is related to the protests, Shea replies that in these trying times, “you can’t separate anything.”
“It’s been a tough year for [everyone] this year. And now on the heels of that, if you’re in law enforcement, on top of what’s already happened this year, it’s been extremely difficult. And now, on top of that, with the defund movement … And this weekend in New York, we had protests. We’ve had protests literally every day since May. A lot of people don’t realize that.
“So, when you talk about morale, I think it ebbs and flows. Overall, the trend would be, I would say, down, but it’s … a lot better, I think, on September 21st than it was June 1st.”
‘It All Starts With Talking’
In addition to waiting for the courts to reopen and the pandemic to be over, and an end to what he has referred to as a “perfect storm” of difficult events, Shea is making efforts to both reduce gun violence and improve police-community relations, a centerpiece of de Blasio’s crime fighting strategy, termed “community policing.”
This summer, the NYPD held a number of Stop the Violence anti-gun town hall events throughout the city, and implemented tactical changes such as shifting officers to areas experiencing upticks in shootings and calling on officers “to engage with residents at the grassroots level to focus on the problems and solve them locally,” the Department has said.
Shea shook up Department leadership in late June, appointing Chief Jeff Maddrey as head of the Community Affairs Bureau. “Trust is built slowly over time, and is lost very quickly,” the commissioner said at the time. “We in law enforcement realize that, and it’s up to us to fix it. It all starts with talking.”
And the commissioner, in a move decried by law-and-order advocates, disbanded the plainclothes anti-crime unit — which was largely responsible for taking illegal guns off the street — at least partly because the unit was the subject of a disproportionate number of complaints of overaggressive tactics.
Cutting Off the Pipeline
Early in his tenure — pre-COVID, pre-crime spike, pre-protests, pre-defund, pre-court closures — Shea implemented a youth initiative, because, as he says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to keep these kids out of the [criminal-justice system] pipeline in the beginning?”
“You have to deal with the crime that’s happening now and people that are ensnarled in the criminal-justice system and reform them, and make them accountable for their actions, but you don’t want to lock people up forever, either. While you’re doing all that, and having systems to divert people out for low-level, non-violent things and make sure they’re actually held accountable, I think it’s imperative that we stop the pipeline.”
The initiative is designed to have police connect youth with neighborhood programs — like the Police Athletic League, mentors, and other social programs.
“When you look at kids that make mistakes, we shouldn’t write them off,” says the commissioner. “Every one of us has made mistakes. Bring them along, mentor them, give them an opportunity to succeed.”
Some feel that a Police Department focused on community and youth programs is one that has lost its focus on crime fighting.
But the NYPD commissioner calls this initiative, “100% crime fighting,” because if the kids at risk are not given help and diverted onto a proper path, eventually “we’re going to be chasing them around with handcuffs.
“The message to cops from me has always been — and I think it’s powerful and I think it needs restating over and over, though, because you get numb sometimes in the line of law enforcement — not to underestimate the effect and the impact that you could have on anyone’s life every day. They’re calling you at the worst time, they need the most help, and one kind word or nice, kind action can literally have an impact on someone’s life.
“And that’s the driving philosophy.”