To mark the one-year anniversary of PERF’s first Daily COVID-19 Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. New York City and the NYPD were hit harder by the pandemic than any other city, and Commissioner Shea was PERF’s most frequent interview subject over the past year, appearing in daily reports on March 26, April 17, September 15, and October 15.

In this report, he discusses the pandemic, his recent address on race and policing, the NYPD’s new officer profile database, and gun violence.


Wexler: This is my fifth interview with you. Are you tired of me yet? (laughter)

Commissioner Shea: I was tired of you a long time ago. (laughter)

Wexler: What are your reflections on the pandemic as we pass the one-year anniversary of New York City declaring a state of emergency?

Commissioner Shea: It’s like the scenario that just won’t go away at this point. 52 members of the NYPD have passed away. Of course things are better today, but we have three people in the hospital right now. One civilian member is in really tough shape, on a ventilator for a long time. We keep our prayers with him and hope for the best.

It’s been a long journey. We’ve leaned heavily on the medical division and our deputy commissioner of management and budget. We’ve leaned on the medical division for the COVID piece, and now for the vaccine piece. This week New York is giving vaccines to residents in the housing authority. That ties into building trust and community relations.

We’re near the end now. The vaccines are here, and we’re vaccinating members of the department. We’ve vaccinated over 30% of the department. I wish it were higher. I never mandated that anyone get it, because I didn’t think that would be right. But I think when you combine the more than 30% who have gotten the vaccine with all the people in the department who have had COVID, we’re getting close. God willing, the whole country will get back to some sense of normalcy soon regarding COVID.

We lost [Chief of Transportation] Billy Morris. [Deputy Commissioner] John Miller was pretty sick, as well as [Chief of Labor Relations] Ed Delatorre and a number of people. I think it was very different early on when the hospitals were overwhelmed and people didn’t know how to treat it. Last March and April were scary times.

Wexler: Do you know why it hit your professional staff so heavily?

Commissioner Shea: I think it hit everyone, but when you look at the loss of life, age is a factor. Our civilian staff is significantly older, so that’s one risk factor against them. Unfortunately there were some other commonalities, including some being overweight and diabetes coming up over and over. People who had those risk factors and caught it, particularly early on, were really behind the eight ball.

Wexler: Tell me about your push to get your staff vaccinated, right around the time when you were infected with COVID-19.

Commissioner Shea: We were supposed to be slated at the end of December, and that kind of came and went. We were pushed back. They’re tough decisions, and it’s hard to say, “No, do us first,” as opposed to other people. I think everyone had claims that should be listened to. But there was a lot of back and forth, and we were advocating very fiercely for our members. We understand health care workers, teachers, and the elderly need to be vaccinated, but we wanted to make sure that we were not forgotten in there.

People in many fields have been home for the past year. These cops and civilian workers have been out there since day one on the front lines, as others have. We wanted to make sure they were getting the vaccine at the first available opportunity.



Wexler: Why did you make your recent address on race to the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce?

Commissioner Shea: The frustration I have is that we’re stuck in many ways. Nobody is more proud of the work of the police department and law enforcement than me, and I know many in this profession share that.

It was uncomfortable. You’re so proud of what you do, and what you see this profession do, day in and day out, but you have to also acknowledge the imperfections of what we do.

You hear from your own employees and people from across the city about their struggles and life experiences, which don’t always align with yours. I think you have to be vulnerable in this space for us to move forward. I think we need more people to be the first person, make themselves vulnerable, get people together, and move forward. In this case, it’s moving forward as a city, but really as a country too.

You want to have a hard conversation, start talking about race. But it’s absolutely a part of this country. Cops and police chiefs know as much as anyone about the intricacies of high-crime areas, poverty, how much needs to be done, and how much we’re asked to do beyond the role of traditional law enforcement.

In New York, we had to do a reform initiative under the governor’s executive order. I got some good advice from a few business leaders in New York City about how we move forward. I reached out to three people: Wes Moore from Robin Hood, Arva Rice from the New York chapter of the Urban League, and Jennifer Jones Austin, who is extremely well-respected here in New York City and beyond. She works with the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. I asked the three of them, who were not traditional law enforcement “allies,” to work on this package dealing with race, policing, and the police department moving forward. I told them that if they got in on the ground floor, I’d give them an opportunity to impact policy. We’ve come out with a new reform plan, which is a work in progress. I haven’t known them long, but I would consider them real, true partners in this. And I think we need more of that: people reaching across the aisle, having hard conversations, and getting out of our comfort zone.

Wexler: What has been the reaction to this address internally?

Commissioner Shea: When George Floyd happened and the riots happened in New York City, I sat down with my deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion, Tanya Meisenholder, and her team. We started having race forums. They were basically Zoom meetings where members of the NYPD left their rank at the door and had hard conversations. We had months of this go on. It included civilian members, uniformed members, and multiple ranks who told their experiences on the job, at the workplace, and off duty. I thought that was really powerful.

Some people gave me some criticism for things I’ve said publicly, about not thinking about them enough, and thinking about one race or another. I don’t want to stereotype, but unfortunately it’s kind of going down racial lines. I have had a lot of people, both uniform and civilian, thanking me for what I said. But it’s tended to be African-Americans. You can draw whatever conclusions you want from that.

Others say, “Why is the police department apologizing? We didn’t do this. We’re just trying to help people.” A lot of that is true, but I think a lot of that is a little bit narrow-minded. You have to get in someone’s shoes and see the world that they’ve experienced every day. I think the more we have those conversations, the better.

The United States is not the same as it was in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I think there’s a natural evolution to this. At the same time, racism is not going away. I think the more you shine a light on it, the better.



Wexler: Tell me about the NYPD’s new searchable database of officer disciplinary records and other information.

Commissioner Shea: I think we get into most of our problems with discipline, the lack thereof, or the perception of the lack of discipline. That has come up so often this year.

When Jimmy O’Neill was commissioner, he assembled a blue-ribbon panel. They issued a report that said the NYPD’s discipline is pretty robust, it seems to be fair, and here are some areas you can improve on. But it also said that one thing we’re terrible at is that we’re not transparent at all. Civil Rights Law Section 50-a in New York shielded some public employees’ records from the light of day, and all this came together this year. Through a series of court cases, then legislation, 50-a was changed significantly.

One of the things mentioned in that report was a discipline matrix. We were working on a discipline matrix, which we did with public input, stakeholder input, and our Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).  We basically said, “If you have a cop who is accused of doing something wrong, he or she should know what the expected penalty is.” The civilian complaint investigator should know it too. If they substantiate it, they shouldn’t be making up penalties, and having different people assigning different penalties for the same offense.

When it comes to the NYPD and me, I shouldn’t be disciplining based on whether I know a cop or what the weather is that day. Everybody should be working off the same playbook. That’s the discipline matrix. Then we signed an MOU with the CCRB to say that we’re all going to follow that matrix except in exceptional circumstances. If we don’t, I’ll put it in writing to tell the CCRB and the public why.

We developed an online dashboard, and basically you can look up any cop. You can imagine how this was received internally. We’ve worked with them, and we tried to be fair to them. But we had to put information out. That is up online now. You can go look at a cop and see if they have substantiated complaints, how many awards they got, whether they got commendations, and how many arrests they’ve made.

We’ve put a significant amount of data up online, because I think the darkness was our worst enemy. I think if we show people our discipline system, a lot of our problems may go away.

I am now getting criticized by a small number of people for not including the unsubstantiated or not guilty complaints. If an allegation is made and it’s investigated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, for example, and if they find the cop did nothing wrong, I’m not putting that complaint up on that dashboard. I have the ability to do that, but I didn’t think it was appropriate, which is that balance I’m trying to strike.

At the end of the day, we work for the public. They have a right to see it.

We’ve made steady improvements. The blue-ribbon panel said we have a robust system, and we’ve done a lot since 2014 with Bill Bratton, Jimmy O’Neill, and Ben Tucker. But we own our history that wasn’t as good too. And even now, as good as it is, you’re always going to find something wrong. We can’t let that define us. I don’t want to make it seem like we’re without our own problems. When there are cases, we own them. We think we’ve gotten much better, but if we’re going to say that, we’d better be able to back it up. We think this transparency is incredibly important.

Wexler: Why do you want to have the final determination over punishment?

Commissioner Shea: If I do a bad job, there’s a really easy mechanism to fix it: fire me. The mayor has that ability at any time. We need somebody in charge of an agency with ultimate accountability for the good and the bad, and the ability to fix it.

This isn’t the only thing we put online. We recently put a dashboard with the race, age, and sex of our employees, sworn and civilian, at all ranks. So if you think we’re not putting enough importance on diversity, look it up and come back to me. If we’re not moving the needle, blame me. But we put it up for the world to see. We’re making a strong move towards transparency.

It’s the same with discipline. I set the agenda. I either get the men and women moving in the right direction or not. I change the policies, modify the policies, and hold people accountable when they don’t follow them. I know some people feel strongly about taking that away, and I respect that opinion, but it’s just not my opinion. I know some places have gone to civilian panels, and I’ve had this conversation with my mayor many times. But no one is going to be harder on bad cops than me.



Wexler: After a tough year for gun violence, how are you feeling about the levels of homicides and shootings now?

Commissioner Shea: We still have a lot of concerns. The courts are slowly moving, but they’re not really helping us. Some laws are not helping us. So we have a lot of concerns. We finished last year with a nearly 100% increase in shootings. Right now I’m at a 40% increase in shootings over the first 10 weeks of last year.

The one thing we know how to do here in New York is fight crime in a sophisticated and efficient manner with all the tools at our disposal. But we need to do it without our hands tied. It’s tough at times, with the legislation and particularly the courts. I’m optimistic about a lot of things, but I’m also concerned, because a lot of the issues we’ve faced over the last year or two are still there.

There are a lot of unknowns. With the city not being up and running as much because of COVID, it’s masking a lot of the nonviolent crime numbers. And you have people with a lot of different agendas, such as that no one should be in jail. We need to have hard conversations with calmer heads, because it’s really not complicated to get it under control. But right now we still have some issues.

Saturday morning I woke up to a story of a young mother of two who went out to get milk and was hit by a stray bullet and killed. That rips us apart. We’ve had stories like that too many times in the last year and a half. Any death is too much, and there are innocent people walking around being hit by stray bullets. That had become extremely rare in New York City just two years ago. The gun violence has to be tackled.

I testified today at the city council, and part of my testimony was asking for their help with resources, tools to effectively fight crime, and support.

You don’t have to choose fair policing or being tough on crime. We can do both, and that’s what we need to get to.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.