Home featured These Remarks Might Get a Police Chief Fired. Not in New York.

These Remarks Might Get a Police Chief Fired. Not in New York.


The criticism of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s law enforcement policies was stinging.

A law banning the use of chokeholds and similar types of restraints by police officers was “insane.” Agreeing to cut the Police Department budget was a “bow to mob rule.” Those who failed to “stand up for what’s right” were “cowards.”

But the outspoken critic was not a rival of the mayor’s or one of the candidates vying to succeed him. It was Dermot F. Shea, Mr. de Blasio’s own police commissioner, a trusted ally who went rogue in media interviews and in a private address to police brass.

The commissioner’s comments — and the fact that he still has his job — speak to the deeply fraught relationship that Mr. de Blasio has maintained with the Police Department throughout his tenure.

Mr. de Blasio has made racial justice and an overhaul of police practices central to his political brand, from his initial mayoral campaign in 2013 to his brief candidacy for president last year.

But as mayor, Mr. de Blasio has often shown surprising deference to his police commissioners — three Irish-American veterans of the department — adopting a hands-off approach that affords the commissioners an unusual amount of leeway.

The mayor’s approach has frustrated advocacy groups that favor broad changes to policing in New York and that contend he is not doing enough to hold the police accountable, especially after a wave of Black Lives Matter protests. Some are calling for Commissioner Shea to resign or be removed, but the mayor has dismissed those suggestions amid a recent spike in violence in the city.

A video that surfaced last week that showed officers pulling a protester into an unmarked van — evoking the practices of aggressive federal agents in Portland, Ore. — intensified the backlash against the police.

Credit…@Naddleez on Twitter via Reuters

The Police Department said in a statement that the protester had been taken into custody by officers from the warrant squad in connection with “damaging police cameras during five separate criminal incidents in and around City Hall Park.”

Mr. de Blasio said that it was “the wrong time and the wrong place” to make that arrest, and that any scenes similar to Portland were “troubling.” The mayor said he would talk to Commissioner Shea about “a better way to get that done,” though he said destroying police property was not acceptable.

In cities like Atlanta and Louisville, Ky., police chiefs have lost their jobs after episodes of police violence in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But Commissioner Shea’s job security seems far more assured.

“I’ve been very clear about my faith in Commissioner Shea,” Mr. de Blasio said at a recent news conference. “I have known him over these whole seven years of the administration, and I’ve seen what he can do.”

All of Mr. de Blasio’s police chiefs have been acolytes of his first commissioner, William J. Bratton, who became a policing celebrity in the 1990s for his “broken windows” approach to fighting crime. The second commissioner, James P. O’Neill, was a protégé of Mr. Bratton’s, and offered continuity, as has Commissioner Shea, known for overseeing the data-driven Compstat program.

Mr. de Blasio kept going back to the Bratton orbit because the results were good, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy nonprofit.

“Crime has continued to go down, and people were generally satisfied,” Mr. Wexler said. “If you’re de Blasio, you’re like, ‘Why would I make a dramatic change?’”

Still, the mayor’s opponents say it took far too long to fire Daniel Pantaleo, the officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death in 2014, and argue that the mayor was too slow to fix a process that allowed officers’ disciplinary records to remain secret under a state measure known as 50-a.

ImageThe mayor has been criticized for not taking a more active stance against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner in 2014.
Credit…Byron Smith for The New York Times

Policing has been a persistently thorny issue for Mr. de Blasio, emerging early in his tenure. His election in 2013 was fueled in part by his opposition to the stop-and-frisk policies under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, along with a television ad starring Mr. de Blasio’s son, Dante, who is Black and pledged that his father would end the discriminatory practice.

Late in his first year as mayor, a Staten Island grand jury refused to bring charges against Mr. Pantaleo. Mr. de Blasio chose not to criticize the decision, disappointing many of his supporters. But in his response, he also angered the police rank and file when he disclosed how he had urged his son to take special precautions when dealing with police officers.

The police unions accused Mr. de Blasio of creating an anti-police environment that they said contributed to the fatal shootings of two police officers in December 2014. Officers turned their backs on the mayor at the men’s funerals.

Since then, the mayor has been careful in trying not to alienate the police, and that could be a factor in how much independence he gives his police commissioners.

Black leaders have repeatedly called on Mr. de Blasio to select a commissioner who is a person of color. Yet last year, he passed over Benjamin Tucker, who was the second-highest-ranking police leader and is Black, in favor of Commissioner Shea.

Mr. de Blasio appears to genuinely like Commissioner Shea, who joined the department in 1991, saying he chose him because he was a “proven change agent.”

Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

The mayor and the police commissioner may not seem like natural allies. Mr. de Blasio is a Democrat in the mold of progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Commissioner Shea is a registered Republican who has declined to say if he voted for President Trump in 2016.

Devora Kaye, a Police Department spokeswoman, said Commissioner Shea’s relationship with the mayor “continues to be strong and productive and, integrally, very open and honest.”

That frankness was recently on display after Mr. de Blasio signed the chokehold bill, which also banned actions by police officers that compress a person’s diaphragm.

The next day, July 16, Commissioner Shea railed against city leaders as “cowards” at a CompStat meeting. He cited political pressure for pushing some people out of jail and keeping others out, probably referring to recent changes to bail laws and the court system that he has blamed for the spike in crime.

When The New York Daily News published a video of his comments, Mr. de Blasio told reporters that Commissioner Shea’s “language wasn’t constructive.”

“I’ve understood it was important for him to express some of those concerns,” the mayor said, “but now it’s time to move forward.”

At least three City Council members have called on Commissioner Shea to resign, as has Maya D. Wiley, a former lawyer for Mr. de Blasio who is considering a run for mayor.

“I’ve never seen a commissioner, or any head of any agency, be so outwardly insubordinate and disdainful of the rule of law, the City Council and the democratically elected mayor who is their boss,” said Councilman Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat.

Ms. Kaye, the police spokeswoman, said that Commissioner Shea had not been talking about Mr. de Blasio when he referred to cowards at the CompStat meeting. She declined to say who he was admonishing; the commissioner was not made available for an interview.

It is unusual for a police commissioner to speak as bluntly as Commissioner Shea did at the CompStat meeting, said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College.

“A police commissioner speaking among friends might say what Shea said, but to say it in a large forum indicates a level of exasperation that shows either a loss of self-control or a lack of political judgment,” Professor Sherrill said.

Commissioner Shea has been under immense pressure during the pandemic, and more than 40 members of the Police Department have died of Covid-19, said Mr. Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, who has spoken to Commissioner Shea several times in recent months. The decision to disband the department’s anti-crime units shows that Commissioner Shea understands the need to restore public trust, he said.

“Police chiefs face a tough balancing act: recognizing the need for reform — and he gets it — and you can’t lose the cops,” Mr. Wexler said.

Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, pointed out that the mayor was much harder on his health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who had to apologize for comments she made about not giving masks to the police during a shortage in March.

“What’s most stark is that Dr. Barbot was forced to apologize,” said Mr. Williams, who added that he was not yet calling for Commissioner Shea’s resignation. “But there seems to be no accountability for the leadership of the N.Y.P.D.”


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