By Rocco Parascandola, The New York Daily News via The NYPD News
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill is leading the nation’s largest police department toward a once-unthinkable record: a murder rate on track to dip below 300.
But as he wraps up his first year in the job, he points to three specific deaths that tested his mettle most.
Two were cops killed by gunmen — Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo and Officer Miosotis Familia — and one was a 66-year-old mentally ill woman, Deborah Danner, shot dead in a confrontation with police on Oct. 18, just a month after O’Neill took over as top cop last September.
“I kind of knew that coming into the position, that there’d be real difficult days,” says O’Neill, a 34-year veteran who served as chief of department before being named commissioner.
“I knew what it felt like.
(A New York City police officer is dead after being ambushed overnight in the Bronx. Courtesy of CBS This Morning and YouTube. Posted on Jul 5, 2017)
“But to be their commissioner during these time periods — it’s just extremely difficult.”
The country was watching as his stoic veneer — and voice — cracked, bringing him to the brink of tears during his heartfelt eulogy for Familia, executed in cold blood July 5 by a mentally ill ex-con as she sat in a police van in the Bronx.
O’Neill, who during the eulogy criticized the “hate” increasingly shown toward cops, says he hopes the nation was also listening.
(New York’s police commissioner says the public needs to step up to protect police at a time when they’re under attack. Courtesy of Associated Press and YouTube. Posted on Jul 11, 2017)
“Did I see that as an opportunity to speak beyond New York City? I’d have to say ‘Yes.’
“And it was easy to do, because what happened to her, should not ever happen to any cop again,” O’Neill told the Daily News in a wide-ranging interview in his office at 1 Police Plaza at the end of his first year on the job.
“She was murdered for the mere fact that she was wearing an NYPD uniform.
“It takes a little piece out of you, too.”
He speaks equally emotionally about the death of Sgt. Tuozzolo, who was shot to death in the Bronx Nov. 4 while responding to a report of domestic violence.
(NYPD Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo, a married father of two young boys, was killed in the Bronx by an armed ex-con cowering in a crashed Jeep Cherokee. Tuozzolo saved the life of Sgt. Emmanuel Kwo, said Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. Courtesy of The New York Daily News and YouTube)
“You take responsibility,” O’Neill says.
“You’re ultimately accountable — and then you have to speak with the family and talk to them and let them know what happened.
“A lot of it takes place that day in the hospital.”
“It’s an incredibly emotional experience.”
“It’s devastating to the families, obviously, and it takes a little piece out of you, too.”
(What started as a call for help for a mentally ill woman in the Bronx ended with her death. The police sergeant accused of pulling the trigger has been charged with her murder, but he says he did nothing wrong and acted in self defense. Courtesy of CBS New York and YouTube. Posted on May 31, 2017)
That compassion was also on hand, but less welcome, after the death of Danner in her Castle Hill apartment, which he was quick to criticize — drawing the ire of some members of the rank-and-file and union leaders.
Sgt. Hugh Barry was part of a team of officers responding to a 911 call from a neighbor, who said Danner was behaving erratically.
Barry talked Danner into dropping the scissors she was holding, but then Danner, a diagnosed schizophrenic, swung a wooden bat at Barry.
Instead of backing out of the rear bedroom, using his Taser or calling for the Emergency Service Unit, he shot Danner to death.
Barry, on the force eight years, was charged in May with second-degree murder.
Critics have said that O’Neill shaped the narrative of the investigation when he publicly said police failed to follow proper protocol for dealing with the emotionally disturbed.
“What is clear in this one instance: We failed,” O’Neill said at the time.
He knows many on the force still disagree.
“I love being a cop,” he says.
“I love being around cops. But in this position I have to tell the truth.”
Ed Mullins, head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said O’Neill spoke too quickly and without full knowledge of the facts.
“It was an amateur mistake,” Mullins maintains.
“As far as the rank-and-file go, they think O’Neill failed.”
“We gotta get this guy”
Still, his time on the streets and man-of-the-people rep — not long after being tapped as commissioner, he tweeted a side-by-side picture of himself and “Blue Bloods” star Tom Selleck sporting a lookalike stash – made him a popular choice for the top NYPD job when he was sworn in Sept. 19, 2016.
O’Neill, who’s called “Jimmy” by friends, cut his teeth in the department, joining the Transit Police Department in 1983.
That unit, along with the Housing Police Department, merged with the NYPD.
In 2003, he had a narrow miss with an armed gunman while working as commander of the 44th Precinct in the Bronx.
The suspect turned and fired, just missing the pair of Bronx cops, Sgt. Kevin Costello and then-Inspector O’Neill, who’d been chasing him inside a building on Shakespeare Ave.
Costello fired back, but no one was hit. They gave chase and arrested the shooter.
“How do you feel during the moment?” O’Neill asks in hindsight.
“You feel, ‘All right we gotta get this guy.’ But I think a little bit afterwards, it starts to sink in, the reality of what just happened.”
O’Neill’s career stalled when then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in 2008 removed him from his post as citywide narcotics commander following allegations that cops were stealing seized drugs to pay off informants and cash from dealers to pay off tipsters.
But O’Neill was resurrected when Bill Bratton became commissioner for a second time, in 2014.
Bratton promoted him to chief of patrol, then to chief of department.
When Bratton told Mayor de Blasio in 2016 that he’d be retiring he pushed for the mayor to replace him with O’Neill.
The mayor did just that.
O’Neill, 60, calls his relationship with de Blasio “great,” and the feeling appears to be mutual.
“Decades in the department and years on patrol helped him shape the concept of neighborhood policing,” the mayor told The News.
“It’s his community-based approach to public safety that’s going to make our city even safer.”
In the years since O’Neill led the Bronx precinct and was caught in gunfire, violent crime has continued to plummet.
In 2003, 596 people were murdered citywide.
This year, the city is on track to notch fewer than 300 murders if the current trend holds, records show.
An ally on every block
O’Neill believes part of the way he’ll successfully continue to budge these numbers even lower is the NYPD’s Neighborhood Policing initiative.
He speaks of the increased enthusiasm with which patrol officers approach their job, particularly neighborhood coordination officers who now spend a chunk of their day not responding to 911 calls but instead developing relationships with residents, tenant leaders and merchants.
A generation ago, it was called community policing and hard-boiled cops — as well as then-mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani — derided it as “social work.”
The difference now, O’Neill says, is that the primary focus is to drive crime down past its record lows, something he feels can be done if police have an ally on every block.
City Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, gave O’Neill high grades.
She cited his “genuine willingness to work with everyone,” and called Neighborhood Policing “a creative way to involve neighborhood residents, community leaders and faith-based leaders who all have a vested interest in the overall public safety of their communities.”
But every day in court, some 90% percent of those who appear before a judge are black or Hispanic, a percentage, some have noted, that has remained steady even as street stops have plunged more than 90% the last few years and arrests and summons have continued to drop.
O’Neill, as Bratton did before him, says a large part of low-level enforcement comes in response to community complaints and that the NYPD answers their calls, regardless of race.
“Like they got higher power”
But Tina Luongo, who heads the criminal defense division for the Legal Aid Society, said such policing isn’t necessary to keep the crime-rate low and that Legal Aid lawyers who appear in court every day still hear stories from clients that suggest Neighborhood Policing — however well-intentioned — isn’t quite what’s its cracked up to be.
“These are good initiatives,” she said.
“But until the city scraps broken windows policing and brings real transparency and accountability for officers who commit acts of police brutality, the relationship between the department and communities of color will never be where it should be.”
On the streets, the intended fruits of the initiative are obvious to some New Yorkers and but less obvious – or believable — to others.
In Bushwick, for instance, Criessada Bishop, 19, sees police interacting with residents routinely. She has said hello to officers, but never had a meaningful conversation.
“They act like they got higher power,” she said. “They have a tendency to talk down to you.
In Crown Heights, 48-year-old Red Jones is aware of Neighborhood Policing, but has yet to talk with any NCO, police jargon for Neighborhood Coordination Officer.
“I believe they’re always going to be looking for something,” Jones said.
“Once you’re trained a certain way, it’s very hard to change it.”
Sentiment was similar in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where residents, while fully acknowledging police are less confrontational, are still stinging from hundreds of thousands of stops — most resulting in no arrests or summonses — that were made in their neighborhood when Michael Bloomberg was mayor and Raymond Kelly was police commissioner.
“I saw friends roughed up for no reason,” said Dave Montgomery, 23, a carpenter.
“Lately, it’s more being watched over than any kind of personal interaction. I’m personally still in fear of that, just for who I am, being a young black man.
“That said, getting closer to police doesn’t seem like a bad idea, though there’s still a lot of trust issues.”
“As transparent as possible”
O’Neill has spoken repeatedly about gaining —or regaining — that trust.
It’s why, he said, he ordered the release last month of the body camera footage that shows police officers shooting dead a man — armed with a knife and what turned out to be a toy gun — after repeatedly trying to get him to empty his hands and surrender.
But he admits to being “hamstrung” by 50-a, the section of the state civil rights law that protects from public disclosure, barring a judicial order, an officer’s personnel record.
(WARNING: Graphic content. (Disclaimer: Video posted strictly for educational and information purposes only) ** The New York City Police Department released the body-camera footage of a deadly police-involved encounter, the first such recording since officers started wearing the devices. Courtesy of PoliceActivity and YouTube. Posted on Sep 14, 2017)
A change in the law, as O’Neill has called for, appears unlikely any time soon.
“I think 50-a is important to protect police officers — I get that,” O’Neill says.
“But it’s also important that we be as transparent as possible … I think that would go a long way to making the people in the city feel a little better about the NYPD.”
The top cop is also equally frustrated by the holding pattern the NYPD finds itself in as the Department of Justice considers possible charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Departmental charges against Pantaleo appear likely — even if Pantaleo is not criminally charged.
And while O’Neill has already decided what he intends to do with the embattled officer, he would not discuss specifics.
“I would like this to be over with,” he says. “I would like to move forward.”
(Hundreds of protesters lay down on the floor of Grand Central Terminal. Courtesy of ABC News and YouTube. Posted on Dec 4, 2014)
O’Neill, who grew up in East Flatbush and now lives in lower Manhattan, eschews the city nightlife that former commissioners enjoyed, preferring to ride his motorcyle or play hockey in his off-time.
A father of two, he’s a man of routine who wakes up at least once a night to check his smartphone for crime or terror updates.
Up for good at 5 a.m., he’s in the office a half-hour later for an early meeting and pre-dawn workout.
(Meet new NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill. Courtesy of Fox News and YouTube. Posted on Oct 11, 2016)
O’Neill, who was groomed by Bratton to replace him, is all but certain to be asked by de Blasio to stay on as commissioner, assuming the mayor is re-elected.
O’Neill stopped short of saying he’d stay the full four years, though he didn’t suggest he’d leave if he got a better offer.
“I’m not good at predicting the future,” he says.
“But I love what I’m doing now and I would love to stay in this position to help the city and the men and women of the NYPD.”
WITH ANDY MAI, DALE EISENGER