Incoming NYPD Chief a ‘Visionary’ With Few Bonds to Jewish Community

New York City’s incoming police chief, Dermot Shea, is a cop’s cop who will quickly gain the trust of the Jewish community, despite having few present relationships, predicted a close friend of Shea’s on Monday, hours after Commissioner James O’Neill’s surprise resignation led to the appointment.

Devora Halberstam, an honorary NYPD commissioner and founder of the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, recalls many hours of conversation with Shea (pronounced Shay) ever since they met last year when they were both honored by the department’s Shomrim Society.

“I spent many hours talking to him about community and policing,” Halberstam told the Yated, “and I think he’s a great, great man, a sensitive person, a compassionate person, a law and order person. He’s a real leader. I feel so secure saying that he will do right for the community, for the police department.”

Two people who spoke to the Yated said that, aside for Halberstam, they were not aware of any existing relationships Shea has with Jewish groups. That is certain to change, since the Orthodox community has over a dozen Shomrim groups and police liaisons who attend events and get acquainted with police brass.

“I asked someone in the department who are his Jewish friends and was told he doesn’t have any, only with Devora Halberstam,” a police liaison said. “But, to be honest, he did not have to reach out to communities in his present role.”

Halberstam echoed that, saying that Shea’s current role was mostly behind the scenes, which did not require him to go out and meet people.

“Do I think he will rise to the occasion? Without a doubt,” she said. “He will be there for each and every community. He’s a spectacular person. I have the highest regard for him. He’s a person who listens; he’s not an arrogant person.”

O’Neill had been embraced by the community, particularly since he was a frequent visitor to Jewish neighborhoods in the wake of high profile incidents.

Halberstam said she was “thrilled” with the appointment of Shea, whom she first met when they were both honored by the Shomrim Society, a century-old organization (not to be confused with the better-known Shomrim groups that operate in Orthodox neighborhoods across the tristate area). She is the mother of Ari Halberstam Hy”d, who was killed in a 1994 attack by an Islamist terrorist while riding in a van on the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the quarter-century since the tragedy, Halberstam has dedicated her life to combating terrorism and hate, opening the museum to inculcate inclusiveness and training the NYPD in counterterrorism doctrine. She was appointed by O’Neill an honorary commissioner of community safety.

“I’m a victim of terrorism,” she said, “so to me it’s a very important fact that we’re listened to and are understood. We talk regularly. Shea is a visionary and we’re on the same page on so much stuff. I have only good things to say about him.”

O’Neill, who tried to mend a racial divide between the department and minorities, stepped down from his position on Monday, ending a three-year tenure as head of the country’s largest police force. He declared at a news conference that he was unconcerned with his legacy, though he will be remembered for keeping crime rates low even as he shifted policing tactics away from aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses. He presided over an era in which murder rates dipped to lows not seen since the 1950s, according to The New York Times.

“He led a transformation that many people felt was impossible,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the conference in City Hall’s Blue Room. “The relationship between our community and police is fundamentally different today than it was just a few years ago.”

Still, O’Neill’s tenure was marked by some controversies. He is most likely to be remembered by police unions for his firing in August of Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The officer had attempted in 2014 to arrest Eric Garner, a black man who was selling untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island. Garner, who was asthmatic, screamed several times that he couldn’t breathe before dying.

That decision drew praise from Black Lives Matter groups, but it angered the police unions, who said O’Neill had lost the confidence of rank-and-file officers. Arrest rates dropped in the weeks that followed.

O’Neill said he understood the move was a hot topic among officers but denied it had a significant role in his retirement. He said he was leaving to take a job in the private sector.

“It wasn’t any one factor. It was a lot of things,” he said at the conference. “You know, I’m not getting any younger. I have a family, I have two sons. I have my mom, Helen, whom I’m always concerned about. I have six brothers and sisters that I don’t see too much. So it’s the right time. And I’m going to miss it. I really am. I love being a cop.”

Shea is the current chief of detectives, who in his prior role oversaw the department’s pivot to using the CompStat program, which utilizes data-driven analysis to craft policing strategies.

“Dermot is one of the best prepared incoming police commissioners this city has ever seen,” de Blasio said. “Dermot brings a wealth of leadership experience, and he knows what policing needs to be in the 21st century.”

For his part, Shea promised to continue the policies of former commissioner William Bratton and O’Neill, noting that the department had managed to lower crimes rates in the last six years while making fewer arrests and reducing the number of people in jail. “We have done what many thought was impossible,” he said. “The blueprint I think is here. I think it’s time to build upon it.”

The resignation focused renewed attention on the often fraught relationship the mayor has had with many rank-and-file officers.

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the city’s largest police union, had criticized both de Blasio and O’Neill after the firing of Pantaleo, accusing them of not supporting officers.

“We look forward to working with Commissioner Shea to combat the current anti-police atmosphere and make positive changes that will improve the lives of our police officers and every New Yorker we protect,” Lynch said.

De Blasio came to office promising police reform. But after the assassination of two officers in 2014 and protests of the mayor by fellow officers at their funerals, the mayor largely delegated policing policy to his commissioners, first Bratton and then O’Neill, who had been the top uniformed officer on Bratton’s management team.

With the choice of Shea — another of Bratton’s acolytes — the mayor appears to have decided once again that continuity is the best political choice, one that would open himself up to less criticism should New York City’s long trajectory of declining crime begin to reverse.

O’Neill’s neighborhood policing program made building relationships with people a key part of how officers fought crime, shifting the emphasis away from aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses, which had been the department’s longtime tactic for bringing down overall crime.

The NYPD billed it as the biggest strategy shift in more than 20 years and said its goal was to minimize the collateral damage to communities and officers while continuing to drive down serious crime.