NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill: A Real NYPD Blue Blood
Arriving at Police Plaza, NY
One Police Plaza sits to the north side of the off ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s hidden in the shadows of a cluster of buildings: the mighty Municipal Building at One Centre Street, St. Andrews Church, a high school, and the bridge towers. It’s tricky finding the exact point of entry with my GPS telling me to go left, but the street sign reads “no entry” and is barricaded with cement blocks. With just a few minutes to spare, I get to my parking spot, and begin the journey through the security checkpoints; my bag is scanned, photo is taken, driver’s license checked, and I’m questioned at each stop.“I’m here to meet with the Police Commissioner…I have an appointment.” I‘m getting used to the questioning looks from the guards, but after a phone call upstairs each time, I’m given passage. This was pretty cool.
Addressing/thanking police officers at the 1st Precinct station house in Lower Manhattan in the days after a terrorist drove a rental truck along a West Side bicycle path, killing eight and injuring a dozen others.
Having finally reached the lobby of Police Headquarters, the officer at the desk waves me in and greets me by name. A member of the Commissioner’s security detail is already standing by, ready to escort me up the elevator, to his office. Given that this building is probably on the list of U.S. targets by some bad people, I get it — I’ve never felt safer in my life.
Exiting the elevator, I’m led down a hallway, and into a “fish bowl” of an office, surrounded by floor to ceiling windows. I join the NYPD press photographer as the Commissioner arrives and greets staff members on his way to our 11 a.m. meeting. He’s a commanding figure in his blue suit, no more department uniform as I will hear about later. Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill enters with a neighborly, “MJ, how are you doing?” We lived on the same block in Orange County, watched our kids grow up and shared community barbecues. As a journalist, how could I not request an interview? However, I went through proper channels, and after a few weeks of back and forth emails with his staff, I was given 30 minutes with the man who has one of the most challenging jobs in the country, let alone the world.
Visiting a public school in the Bronx and chatting with kids and Police Athletic League members on the basketball court.
We exit the fish bowl, walk into his office. O’Neill then excuses himself for a few minutes, affording me the opportunity to take in the room’s grandeur and history: the position of Police Commissioner and many of the artifacts here have been around since 1901, when the first commissioner was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York. On each wall, there are shelves with pictures, memorabilia, medals, autographs, and O’Neill’s own extensive collection of challenge coins – medallions from all branches of the military and sports organizations created as proof of membership and handed out as souvenirs. There’s a Teddy Roosevelt presence in portraits on the wall, and in fact, as O’Neill says, “that’s Teddy’s desk over there,” pointing to the well-kept brown desk across the room.
Testifying at a City Council Budget Hearing
About the Present Police Commissioner
On the force for almost 35 years, it was surprising to hear that O’Neill was no longer a police officer. “This is a civilian position,” he explains, one appointed by the Mayor. When asked if there was a “term limit,” the answer is: “I serve at the pleasure of the Mayor.” He’s quick to add that of all the questions he’s asked, the most common is this: “How is it working with the Mayor…it must be difficult.” Not so, O’Neill says, “The Mayor and I get along very well…he cares very deeply for the safety of the city…and he’s a real supporter of the NYPD.”
I asked about what inspired O’Neill to become a cop, where there any heroes while growing up in Brooklyn? Without skipping a beat, he says, “My Uncle Bill…who unfortunately died last year.” His Uncle was on the force, and once retired, taught criminal justice for many years. “He was my hero…. such a great guy. When I joined the force, many of my colleagues had had him as their teacher.”
Meeting with Cops on the Street about to be Deployed at a Manhattan Detail.
About the Job
While there’s no such thing as a typical day, O’Neill starts out at 5 a.m. for a daily morning workout, a brief window of time for himself. “After all,” he says, “I’m getting in around 9:30 – 10 p.m., and most nights I’m at an event for a line of duty family, a retirement, or a speaking engagement with a business or community organization.” He’s not a “drop in and go” kind of guy, preferring to use these events to “get to know the officers, their families, and see people from all the five boroughs.”
One event, held this past January, was particularly memorable. O’Neill joined the Mayor to dedicate a plaque to the late Detective Steven McDonald, shot and left paralyzed by a teenage gunman; his story made the front page with every improvement in his recovery. Det. McDonald returned to the force in a wheelchair and on a ventilator, and spent his remaining years calling for peace and forgiveness. “I was a police officer in the Transit Police Department (now defunct) at the time of the shooting but didn’t get to meet him until he was in the wheelchair. Since then, I got to know the family, Patti Ann and Conor – who’s a member of the NYPD, too. I visited Steven in his final days and spoke at his funeral at St. Patrick’s.”
Addressing the Room at the Det. Steven McDonald Plaque Dedication at the Central Park Precinct.
About the Drop in Crime
I came prepared to ask about the city’s impressive drop in the crime rate, with the cases of murders, robberies and assaults down since he took over. “It’s a combination of an additional 3,000 cops added during Mayor David Dinkins term, and the initiation of CompStat during the 1990’s when Bratton was police commissioner.” (CompStat is a system that tracks smaller crimes, and the neighborhoods where crimes are clustered.) Plus, there’s O’Neill’s own contribution from his days as CO: neighborhood policing philosophy, which has greatly improved interactions between the police and the community. However, the department is always looking to improve on how it does its job and is testing out a pilot project which uses algorithms to predict where and when crimes may occur. Its potential is still being examined. “We have all the technological equipment that’s out there,” he explains, “but we still need the human element to track and interpret it.”
Shaking hands with Police Officers on New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
Of the “see something, say something” initiatives, O’Neill says it’s been successful, and wants to make sure that everyone continues keeping an eye out. “We want people to feel comfortable about calling,” he says, “no matter what it is… if they feel uneasy about something, we want to know about it.”
About New Recruits
The department, O’Neill says, is never at a loss for new recruits, although there’s greater emphasis placed on those with good people skills, which fits right in with O’Neill’s neighborhood policing approach. “With all the many cultures in the city, we want to have the officers out in the neighborhoods, aware of the diversity of the city’s population and most of all, building trust.” Since this story is for Woman Around Town, O’Neill had the numbers ready on the percentages of females on the job. Of the 36,000 NYPD officers of various ranks, 17.9% are women; of the more than 18,000 civilian employees, 68.1% are women. And, the total number of females (uniformed and civilian-combined) is about 19,000. The EEO department holds yearly workshops on harassment in the work place, and there’s a lengthy NYC policy and manual available for employees.
Addressing Two Recent, and Separate, Promotion Ceremonies at One Police Plaza
About Tom Selleck and Blue Bloods
No interview with the current NYPD Police Commissioner would be complete without a question about the top-rated TV cop show, Blue Bloods with Tom Selleck in the title role. What does he think of it? “I’ve been on the set twice and met the cast. I think they do a good job, although I told Tom he should lighten up a bit,” he says with a smile. O’Neill shares that he was on a panel a few years back with representatives from TV police shows, and while he did not single out any one show, the message he brought was that the shows, in general, give unrealistic expectations about crime-solving. “Our stories aren’t always neatly wrapped up in an episode,” he explains.
Before we concluded the interview, O’Neill gave me a tour of the office, pointing out some of the highlights from his career. He’s been collecting challenge coins for some time and must have hundreds displayed in his front office, and more in a back office/mini gym. There’s so many, but the one that jumps out at me is the one from the New York Mets. A hockey fanatic, there are framed jerseys on the wall next to an aerial shot of him walking along the large cable that towers high above the Brooklyn Bridge. A feat he did two times, and although not a fan of heights, he was told that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The perks of the job.
Working in his office, sitting at a desk once used by Theodore Roosevelt. (K9 Tori, a counterterrorism “vapor wake” dog, is seated on the floor next to the commissioner.)
Another side of the job is captured in a framed photo taken by an Associated Press photographer and featured on the front page of The New York Times, dated September 17, 2016. The date is significant for two reasons: it was the Police Commissioner’s first day on the job, and also the day Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood was rocked with a bombing that injured 31 people and blew out store front windows. Just the afternoon before, O’Neill had been sworn in.
Asked if he’s learned anything new about the people of the city of New York over the past year, he takes a few seconds to consider his answer. “As I go about the city, talking to people, I hear that we all want the same thing: to be able to work, come home, and live in peace.” When asked if he knew what he wanted his legacy to be, he shrugs and says he doesn’t believe in them, and then he pauses. He does have an answer. “That during my time, the department moved forward.”
All photos courtesy of the NYPD.
Top photo: Holding up Austin Tuozzolo, son of murdered Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo, at a NY Rangers outdoor hockey practice in Central Park