Dermot Shea's Rocky First Year as NYPD Commissioner

December 8, 2020
Samar Khurshid & Ben Max
Gotham Gazette

This past Wednesday, December 2, marked one year since Dermot Shea was sworn in as the 44th commissioner of the New York Police Department, the third commissioner to serve in the role under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Shea’s first year in the top-cop job has been tumultuous and punctuated with controversy; a trial by fire in unprecedented times, and he often came up short, as judged by critics on both his left and his right and those simply frustrated by police brutality and rising crime.

During his first year as NYPD commissioner, Shea repeatedly made false and misleading statements and undermined his boss, the mayor; he publicly criticized many other elected officials, at times in unbecoming rants; he led a police force that repeatedly used excessive force against peaceful protestors while failing to stop multiple nights of looting and a surge in gun violence throughout much of the year, and that enforced new pandemic-related rules in such a racially-biased fashion that de Blasio, in a rare move to hold Shea and his department accountable, quickly removed such enforcement from the NYPD. All while Shea was unable to get much of his police force to follow rules for wearing masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, even as many officers got sick and died. Some of de Blasio’s closest, long-time allies openly criticized the mayor for not better managing the police; some members of the mayor’s administration left.

The year was of course dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed dozens of NYPD officers and sickened hundreds of others while disrupting life throughout the city. It also saw a major spike in shootings and murders that began before the covid outbreak. The streets surged with renewed public attention to police misconduct and systemic racism in policing, with accompanying calls to drastically reform and, from some, to “defund” the police. The rift between many New Yorkers, especially Black and Hispanic residents of the city, and the officers meant to serve and protect them has only grown.

Shea and many other members of the NYPD felt unfairly targeted for incidents that happened elsewhere, like the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and resented what they and the mayor see as a lack of acknowledgement for extensive and ongoing reform efforts. Officers were physically attacked, NYPD vehicles were burned out. Shea and others opposed pieces of reform legislation passed at City Hall and in Albany. Questions have been raised about whether officers engaged in their own partial work stoppage.

And while Shea has often sought to address criticism and quell concerns, to establish his devotion to responsible, unbiased policing, stronger accountability, public safety, and the community good, many of his words and the actions of his department have led some to question his commitment, with calls for his firing, and the results are largely to be seen as de Blasio heads toward his final year in office and what is all-but-certain to be Shea's last year atop the NYPD. 

Shea was a controversial pick in certain quarters from the day of his appointment. Like his predecessors under de Blasio, Bill Bratton and James O’Neill, Shea is a white, male Irish-American. His elevation to the department’s top spot came with no dearth of criticism for the mayor, who had passed over an experienced candidate of color for the third time during his tenure. Two of those times, the department’s second-in-command, Benjamin Tucker, who is Black, had been considered and rejected. 

“Everyone has to understand that this particular job, you know when it comes down to it, we're asking one human being to do an extraordinary set of things and...that's a special calling,” Mayor de Blasio said in a November 5, 2019 appearance on Inside City Hall, after Shea’s appointment was first announced.  

A 29-year veteran of the department, Shea was previously the chief of detectives and, before that, he oversaw CompStat, the department’s crime data tracking system, as chief of crime control strategies and the deputy commissioner of operations. He took over at a time when crime was at historic lows, and arrests, fines, and incarceration had all been significantly reduced through new policies pursued by the City Council and the mayor. 

“You gotta say, no matter what side you’re on on this, that he’s had the toughest year out of probably any police commissioner in recent memory,” said City Council Member Bob Holden, a conservative Queens Democrat and a staunch defender of the NYPD, in a phone interview. “He's got his hands full. It's probably the second toughest job in the city of New York at this point other than the mayor’s.” 

Shea has indeed faced several major challenges since he took the helm of the largest police department in the country, now with nearly 35,000 uniformed officers and well over 10,000 civilian employees, an annual operating budget of around $6 billion, with billions more in NYPD-related spending each year. Though several major felony crimes have skyrocketed this year, others have dropped precipitously, and the total number of seven major index crimes was virtually flat through November of this year compared to the same period in 2019.

But the latest data shows ongoing, highly-concerning increases in murders, shootings, burglaries, and car thefts, and both de Blasio and Shea have both made many excuses as to why the police department hasn't been better able to quell the violence, repeatedly citing a "perfect storm" of factors, some of which hold water. After the pandemic hit the city in March, nearly a fifth of the NYPD’s uniformed personnel were out sick with coronavirus or coronavirus exposure within a month. In the summer, Black Lives Matter protests tested the police’s ability to handle massive demonstrations and, after its glaring failures, prompted calls for defunding the NYPD by at least $1 billion, which became the focus of city budget negotiations and a great deal of heated debate in June.

The resurgent movement for police reform also led to the passage of several new laws at the city and state levels that de Blasio and the NYPD has resisted for years, as well as some changes they supported. Among those were the outlawing of police chokeholds and other restrictions that some say led police officers to back off in their work to stem serious crime.

“I think he's doing a great job under tremendous administrative that he's forced to do more vis-à-vis a year of lockdowns and protests with less staff,” City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican and staunch NYPD supporter, said of Shea. “That’s hard for any commissioner of any agency.”

When Shea first took office, he attempted to build good will with a listening tour, meeting with members of the City Council, community advocates, and faith leaders. He made the obligatory appearance at National Action Network’s House of Justice to meet with civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton. “It's very fitting that I'm here, I think, because I am the police commissioner to-be, of not the police department but of all New York, of 8.5 million New Yorkers,” he said at a news conference after the meeting. 

Tellingly, as Shea’s first year as commissioner was coming toward an end, the police department he leads was conducting a series of listening sessions due to an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo mandating that local jurisdictions create community-informed police-reinvention plans. Meanwhile, New Yorkers are awaiting the outcomes of multiple major investigations of, as well as hundreds of civilian complaints about, the NYPD’s protest policing. Potentially dozens of lawsuits against the department are in motion.

The NYPD press office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Shea about his first year as commissioner.

Though it now seems like a lifetime ago, Shea’s early steps endeared him to some elected officials. “He really jumped out of the box in a good way, really engaging and really listening to folks about what policing should look like in various communities, because we are not one-size-fits-all throughout the city,” said City Council Member I. Daneek Miller, a Queens Democrat, in a phone interview.

But by the start of 2020, just over a month after Shea took the job, data showed that homicides had increased over the previous year. The high-profile murder of a young Barnard College student, Tessa Majors, in December had unnerved many in the city. Just two months before, four homeless men were beaten to death in Chinatown. The incidents lent themselves to a perception of danger more so than the reality that the city was still about as safe as ever before, if not more so, according to the actual crime numbers. 

But in February, data showed a nearly 17% increase in major crime in the first month of the new year compared to the same time last year. Still, the data showed the city was exceptionally safe overall.

“The uptick in crime is relatable to the change of law and policy that a hundred people are responsible for, not named Dermot Shea,” Borelli said. 

Some, including Shea and other top police officials, attributed the uptick to recent reforms in bail laws approved by the state Legislature last year that became effective January 1 of this year, though the data sample was small and often misconstrued. Shea and de Blasio were among those who wanted to see the bail reforms rolled back and relied on flawed arguments, which NYPD data refuted, to support their views. 

The police commissioner had even gone so far as to write an op-ed in the New York Times headlined, “New York’s New Bail Laws Harm Public Safety.” At the time it was published, the laws had only been in full force for 23 days. “The New York Police Department favors criminal justice reforms and bail reform, but within a framework that is fair both to the victims of crimes and to those accused of committing them,” he wrote, arguing that judges should be able to consider the risk a defendant poses to public safety while deciding to set bail. “The time has come to rethink these reforms to achieve the desired goal of a fairer criminal justice system that doesn’t undermine, but supports, public safety.”

The state Legislature would eventually water down the sweeping bail reform, though not fully in the direction that Shea had pushed for. To some, Shea’s fervent advocacy appeared highly political, but the commissioner said it was part of his job as the city’s leading law enforcement official to shape criminal justice policy and the mayor backed Shea’s outspokenness, even when presented with the fact that Shea was peddling misinformation. While de Blasio was typically careful not to repeat the same falsehoods Shea presented, the mayor chalked it up to Shea's passion and differing opinions.

"When the Commissioner took office, I hoped that we could work together on issues of transparency and accountability – and to his credit, I’ve found him accessible to myself and my office,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a frequent NYPD critic and criminal justice reformer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “But a year into Commissioner Shea’s tenure, any progress and reform has been outweighed and overshadowed by a series of misdiagnosed issues, misdirected energy and missed opportunities. He and the Mayor have both been wrong for this moment.” 

In March, the city became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, testing every facet of municipal government, including the police. Police officers were pressed into enforcing social distancing guidelines, a decision that proved misguided when it emerged that 90% of those getting arrested or ticketed were Black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

In a May 13 news conference, Shea denied any racial bias when confronted with instances of violent enforcement caught on camera. “I will push back strongly on any notion that this is business as usual for the NYPD or that this is ‘racist police.’ I think this could not be anything further from the truth,” he told reporters at a news conference with the mayor, arguing that criticism of those actions also endangered the lives of police officers. 

“Accountability is what we must have from this police department and I, as the police commissioner, will not stand for excessive force nor will I stand and defend indefensible actions, but I will also not have my police department called a racist police department,” he said. At a City Council hearing the next day, he conceded that the videos reflected badly on the department. “We have taken a hit to our credibility and to everything that we have worked toward in the last several years,” he said. 

The summer was marked by additional contradictions and complicated dichotomies. Police officers were falling ill in droves but there were dozens of examples of them publicly refusing to wear masks to follow the public health guidelines and protect themselves and others from coronavirus exposure. The large increase in shootings and murders led to calls for more intensive policing while at the same time hundreds of thousands were protesting racist policing and police brutality after George Floyd was killed, urging the city to reduce the size of the police force and to reallocate funds from the NYPD towards communities in need. 

The NYPD responded with brutality against largely peaceful protests against police brutality. But Shea, with the mayor in his corner, repeatedly denied the plainly obvious evidence that was captured in dozens of witness videos and experienced by hundreds of New Yorkers, from aggressive use of batons and pepper spray to inconsistent enforcement of protest behavior and of the weeklong curfew instituted by the mayor, to the use of “kettling” and unwillingness to communicate with protestors. 

Some justified the police crackdown because of instances of violence during the two weeks of protests. More than 350 police officers were injured during the protests, NYPD officials testified at a June 9 City Council hearing. Five officers were hospitalized while 200 were treated and released. There were 232 incidents of vandalism to vehicles in the eight days before the hearing, including police cars that were burnt or had their windows smashed in.  

The NYPD’s behavior prompted hundreds of complaints with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a quasi-independent oversight body, lawsuits from civil rights groups, internal NYPD investigations, an investigation ordered by de Blasio to be carried out by the city’s Department of Investigation and corporation counsel, and an external investigation by State Attorney General Letitia James.

The opposition to Shea’s leadership eventually crystallized in calls from activists and elected officials for Shea to resign or for the mayor to fire him. A notable voice calling for his termination was Maya Wiley, who was formerly counsel to the mayor and also led the CCRB. “If we believe black and Latino New Yorkers deserve to be safe — physically, economically and emotionally — and if we want to truly reform policing, then we need our leaders to lead,” she wrote in a July 9 op-ed in the New York Daily News as she laid the groundwork to launch her own 2021 mayoral bid. “Dermot Shea has proven that he is not up to the task. He must go.”

In a June hearing convened by James to examine the NYPD’s conduct, Shea defended the department’s actions which included the arrests of legal observers, kettling protesters, using pepper spray, beating them with batons and even an instance where officers drove into a crowd of protesters behind a barrier. He portrayed a department under siege and decried, as he had previously done with very limited evidence, the actions of “outside agitators” and anarchists with premeditated plans for violence at protests. “I think the officers used an incredible amount of restraint in terms of allowing people to vent,” he said. “I am proud of their performance in policing these protests, ending the riots, and upholding the rule of law.”

Shea said kettling -- by which lines of officers cut off protest movement on all sides until they decide to let protestors disperse or make arrests -- is not part of the NYPD patrol guide and appeared to feign ignorance about its common use by his commanders.

Reports from James and the other investigation entities have still not been published in full or at all. After months of delay, de Blasio said this past week that the investigation he ordered is due to show results this month. A month prior, in early November, he had said a report was imminent.

Holden praised Shea for sticking up for the department where he said the mayor would not. “Shea did what he's supposed to do. He did stand by his officers in situations that I think he needed to do,” Holden said. “And you have to walk a fine line. I don't think he had a mayor that actually backed him up many times.”

For police reform advocates, Shea’s leadership during the protests was only confirmation. “Commissioner Shea’s first year has been marked by multiple occasions of him misleading the public and enabling police violence,” said Carolyn Martinez-Class, a spokesperson for the Communities United for Police Reform coalition. “Top NYPD officials, including the commissioner, have used their massive public relations apparatus to mislead the public on various issues, including their baseless fear mongering around bail reform, false claims about the reasons crime stats have gone up, and not holding officers accountable when they harm New Yorkers.”

Eileen Maher, a community leader at advocacy group VOCAL-NY, said flatly, “I just think he's doing a terrible job.” But she also blamed the mayor for enabling the commissioner and the NYPD to act with impunity. “There's definitely this kind of sense or aura of ‘we only answer to ourselves, and basically the mayor or anybody else, they don't matter...The next mayor is definitely gonna have to step in and curb the authority of the commissioner.”

As the protests reached critical mass, legislators at the city and state levels quickly moved to approve several policing reforms that had languished for years. The City Council passed a series of reforms including a law criminalizing the use of chokeholds by police during an arrest, which included a provision that also prohibited any method of restraint that could compress an individual’s diaphragm. A less restrictive version of the law was first proposed by Council Member Rory Lancman six years ago after the death of Eric Garner, and it was expanded based on recent events, particularly Floyd’s killing. The mayor begrudgingly expressed support for it and signed it into law, though even at the bill-signing he said the law may need to be tweaked, an extraordinary statement. Shea publicly critiqued the decision, calling it “incredibly reckless” in a videoconference with interfaith leaders after it was approved by the Council.

Asked about Shea’s criticism of the reforms, de Blasio said at a July 6 news conference, “I respect that sometimes people need to express their frustrations because they are deep frustrations. They're working so hard to try and keep people safe and they feel there's some real challenges they are up against. I’m not going to tell people not to say what they feel about that. But in the end, we come to a common approach and we implement it.”

“I know that he has faced challenges like few Commissioners have, internally and externally – from the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in shootings to widespread protests for racial justice and a disastrous curfew,” Public Advocate Williams said of Shea. “But in many of these instances the Commissioner, like much of the administration, has failed to rise to the moment. He has opposed major policing reforms and criticized new bail reforms, stoked inaccurate conclusions and defended inarguable failures. Commissioner Shea may be well-suited to the old ways of thinking about policing, but that has made him less willing to meet the current moment, where we need to re-envision public safety. Unfortunately, he and the Mayor have very often refused to even acknowledge the reality of problems, much less take meaningful action to fix them.

The chokehold law wasn’t the first time Shea undermined the mayor or lashed out at the city’s elected officials. The debate around cutting the NYPD budget reached its zenith as the City Council and mayor negotiated the city budget ahead of its July 1 deadline. And even as the mayor was celebrating reaching an agreement with the Council that would redistribute some funds from the police and commit to other cuts including to overtime and canceling incoming cadet classes, Shea was condemning the final deal, comments that came shortly after he had expressed some general support for shifting NYPD funds elsewhere. 

“Cutting overtime, cutting head strength at a time of rising crime is going to be an extreme challenge for the men and women of this department,” he said in a PIX11 interview on June 30. “It's going to impact our patrol strength, it's going to impact our training, and the sad part is it's probably going to impact people of color more than anybody else.”

In another interview on Fox 5’s Good Day New York, on July 1, he said, “You're seeing the City Council bow to mob rule. And let’s mark the date on the calendar on how long it’s going to be before we’re having a conversation about New Yorkers crying out for more police. I think that day is coming.”

Just two weeks later, Shea took aim at the city’s political class in a CompStat meeting with other top officials. “So many systems of government are literally cowards who won’t stand up for what’s right,” he said, according to video that was first reported by the New York Daily News. “They’re 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? How dare they?”

He added, “People that don’t have a clue about how to keep New Yorkers safe suddenly think they know about policing. I have another thing to tell them: they don’t have a goddamn clue what they’re talking about. But we are not going to let them destroy this city.”

[Police Commissioner Repeatedly Contradicts Mayor on NYPD Reform]

In the face of criticism, whether when he first appointed Shea as commissioner or since, de Blasio has consistently called Shea a reformer. In an August appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, when the mayor was asked about years old misconduct complaints against Shea, he said, “I wish that people in this city knew him better as a human being, because he is a profound reformer. He's...been such a crucial part of the reforms and improvements that have been made. Everything we've done, whether it's ending stop-and-frisk, reducing arrests, changing the marijuana policy, you name it, Dermot Shea has been front and center in that. And he's actually moved police discipline cases faster as police commissioner.”

Shea has taken some steps to improve police accountability and transparency and improve community relations. He disbanded the plainclothes “anti-crime” unit, which accounted for a disproportionate number of complaints of misconduct from the public. The department’s policy for body camera footage, invaluable for investigations of misconduct, was amended for quicker release. New disciplinary measures were put into place based on the recommendations of an independent panel appointed by the previous commissioner. The department also recently held the series of community forums to solicit feedback on how policing should change, though that last step was mandated by the Cuomo executive order.

Advocates say it's mostly tinkering around the edges and that Shea is not the right person to lead the real policing transformation that is needed.

Council Member Miller said Shea can still repair trust between the police and New Yorkers. “The police department is a very large organization. I know it can work because we became the safest big city in America. And that was not just a catchphrase, that was the truth,” he said. 

“That adversarial relationship, that ‘us vs them’ that has occurred on both sides that has begun to manifest itself again is taking us back...We're not where we want to be but we’re certainly not where we were and we need to get back on that track,” he said. “I think he can do it.”