NYPD commissioner James O’Neill, who has served since 2016, announced his resignation Monday. Succeeding him will be the NYPD’s chief of detectives, Dermot Shea. Under normal circumstances, there would be much cause for optimism about the future of the NYPD under Shea—just as there was when O’Neill was named to succeed two-time commissioner William J. Bratton. But thanks to a multitude of forces working to “reform” New York’s criminal-justice system, these are not normal circumstances. When it comes to law enforcement, we’re living in precarious times.
Thanks to New York City’s public-safety rebirth, starting in the early 1990s, residents of the Big Apple have grown accustomed to assessing an NYPD commissioner’s success with a simple metric: whether crime goes down. Under Bratton, Raymond Kelly, Bratton again, and O’Neill, New Yorkers have enjoyed a quarter century of continuous progress on crime. But during most of that stretch, police leaders, prosecutors, politicians, and New Yorkers themselves—for the most part—were in consensus that the NYPD is a force for good, that jail and prison are legitimate responses to serious crime, and that prosecuting those who commit public-order or quality-of-life offenses, such as fare evasion and public intoxication, is both constructive and just.
It might be time to temper our expectations, though. Effective crime-fighting now faces significant obstacles. Brooklyn district attorney Eric Gonzalez has been diverting gun offenders into alternative-sentencing programs at an alarming rate. He has adopted policies of presumptively supporting parole bids, as well as not prosecuting certain disfavored public-order offenses. So has Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council have committed themselves to cutting the city’s jail population to just over 3,000, and to cap it at that level indefinitely—irrespective of crime trends—by closing Rikers Island and building smaller, borough-based jails. The mayor has spearheaded a policy aimed at tripling the number of teenage offenders exempt from bail; Governor Cuomo’s Raise the Age initiative will make it harder to put some teenage felons in prison. Most worrisome, the state’s sweeping bail and discovery reforms go into effect in January, and will significantly raise the transaction costs of criminal prosecutions, endanger potential witnesses, and cut the number of offenders who can be incarcerated pretrial.
As if the push toward depolicing and decarceration among policymakers wasn’t bad enough, the NYPD faces a growing chorus of antipolice rhetoric and an uptick in instances of public abuse and humiliation. Some of the rhetoric has come from the mayor himself, and it has understandably strained his relationship with the rank and file. That tension put O’Neill in a tough spot between a mayor (who, up until recently, was a Democratic presidential candidate) and police union leaders, who wanted the commissioner to push back more forcefully. That pot seemed to boil over with the commissioner’s decision to fire Daniel Pantaleo, blamed by activists for the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.
Worst of all, though, are the signs that public safety in the city may be eroding. Through October 27, murders, robberies, felony assaults, and shootings were all up (albeit slightly) across the city. On the subways, robberies and felony assaults are up this year. And on city streets—like the eastern stretch of 125th Street in Harlem, for example—pedestrians are increasingly subjected to squalor, open-air drug use, and disorder. City jails have seen spikes in inmate violence, raising the question of what will happen when more of these men are permitted to roam the streets.
The new commissioner faces a tough new criminal-justice environment, though O’Neill did a strong, capable job. A Bratton protégé, he worked hard to perpetuate the data-driven policing practices that brought about New York City’s turnaround and managed to leave the city safer than it was when he took office. As things stand now, though, this may be more than we can reasonably expect in the future.
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