In today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler asks NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea about the challenges he has faced, and continues to encounter, in 2020.

Chuck Wexler:  You’re the police chief of the largest city in the country, and it’s three weeks until Election Day. You’re seeing a spike in COVID cases in New York, and you’ve got some crime issues. How do you sort all those issues out?  

Commissioner Shea:  Yeah, there’s a lot of balls in the air, and you only have so many hands, so it’s about managing crises and prioritizing. Between crime and the COVID epidemic, we’re getting killed here with a resources issue and the defund movement. We’re down about 2,600 cops, and we’re down 60% in overtime,  so you’re talking about thousands and thousands fewer cops on the street, at a time when crime has really taken off.  And don’t forget that as a police commissioner, you have an agenda of changes that you’re trying to put into place.  

Wexler:  Let’s talk about COVID first. You went through hell in the spring, you got through hell, and New York became known for beating back the virus and having low numbers.  But now it looks like COVID is starting to spike across the northern half of the country, including parts of New York City.  Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a tightening of rules on schools, businesses, and religious gatherings, which created an uproar and disturbances in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Commissioner Shea:  Yes, this is about small geographical areas in Queens and Brooklyn where COVID rates are above the citywide average, so the Governor and the Mayor together tried to get their arms around the best method to control the rate or slow it down in those areas.  And that falls on the police in terms of how we accomplish that. And you’re right, we’re kind of in the middle there. We have to navigate those waters in terms of the community, the politicians, and a lot of different passionate opinions. A lot of people obviously are calling on us to issue summonses, but I see our way through this as education. Our goal is to keep people safe and avoid having people get sick unnecessarily. We want people to stop the large gatherings and follow the executive orders. We try to do that with the right touch, so that we can get voluntary compliance.

When we learn about any groups that we think are going to be in these zones, we proactively reach out to them and talk to them. And this is where neighborhood policing comes in, in telling people we understand and respect your right to protest and your right to worship, but we also have to deal with these executive orders, and how can we reach agreement so public safety won’t be impacted.

Wexler:  Another issue you’re dealing with is violent crime and guns.

Commissioner Shea:    Yeah, and again it’s tied to resources. This past week we saw 32 shootings in New York City; the same week last year we had 15.  No matter how you slice those numbers, double is double, and it’s not in the place we want to be.

We’re running 10% higher in gun arrests year-to-date, and that’s in spite of the fact that no one was on the streets during March, April, and the beginning of May. So that number is pretty impressive considering that New York was a ghost town for months, and we’re still up in gun arrests.

So I can tell you that the cops are out there working, but too many people are carrying guns on the street. It’s incredibly frustrating for us to look at where we are now, compared to the last couple years, in terms of how our precision policing had driven incarceration down and had driven crime down at the same time.

Wexler: Are you feeling any better about prosecutions and how the criminal justice system is starting to be more accommodating and take gun arrests seriously?

Commissioner Shea:   The problem is that we still struggle in the two boroughs where most of the shootings happen. In Brooklyn and the Bronx, where about 65 to 70 percent of the shootings occur, those are the boroughs where we struggle with sentences. So that’s a bad formula.

It’s getting better now that we have the beginning process of a grand jury starting again. And I think the judges are starting to realize what’s happening, and we’re seeing bail set a lot more than just a couple months ago.

But the individuals caught with guns are getting out of jail within a week or 10 days, and until we start seeing people held accountable for guns, I don’t think we’re going to see dramatic differences. We’ve always worked well with the feds, FBI, ATF, and DEA, especially in the Eastern District, which covers Brooklyn, and the Southern District. We’re drawing on those relationships even more, and they’ve been incredibly helpful in targeting the people who are showing up in shooting after shooting after shooting.

So we’re seeing a lot of good work, but it’s going too slow for how we like to move here in New York. We want to get back to where we were with under 800 shootings a year, which was unprecedented, just a couple years ago.

So the cops are running toward the people with the guns and it’s a credit to them, but we’re going to need a little balance to be put back into the justice system, and some sanity here in New York.

Wexler:   I understand you’re focusing on a youth strategy, and you’re going out across the city with public forums. Can you talk about those issues?

Commissioner Shea:   On the youth strategy, this is one of the things I announced when I became commissioner, before COVID turned everything upside-down. We’re really trying to stop this pipeline of kids getting into trouble and winding up in a situation where they’re 18 years old and they have 20 arrests under their belt, and we say, “How the hell did this happen?”  Two weeks ago, we had a kid, 16 years old, who was shot and is now paralyzed, and he had 24 arrests.

These kids on probation have a mentor assigned by the courts, but because of COVID, it’s a “virtual mentor.”  I’m sorry, but a virtual mentor is not cutting it.  We need to really look at the whole system in terms of keeping kids out of trouble. How do we connect with these kids? How do we connect with the parents? What services can be provided, and in my opinion, not from a policing world, but from a world of humanity.

You mentioned going out across the city. Police agencies in New York State are under a mandate from the governor to connect with our communities. This is a good opportunity, I think, to reset. I just did a press conference with the head of the New York Urban League and other partners on this. We’ll be holding forums across the city to listen to New Yorkers and ask for their thoughts on criminal justice in New York City. What do they think the police do well, what do they think we don’t do so well?

One reporter today asked me, “We hear about these task forces all the time. Why is this different? It’s just another buzzword that you throw out there.” And I said, “Think of what a wasted opportunity it would be in this environment, with everything we’ve gone through this year, to not really look at policing from the New York perspective and imagine what we could do differently.”

And to me, hopefully it won’t be just about police, it’s the entire system. I’m excited about it. I have some really good credible partners on board with us. I expect that we’re going to get some criticism, but I hope that out of this really comes a nice blueprint for what policing could and should look like.

Wexler:  Last question. We have an election three weeks from today. Is this election requiring you to do things you don’t normally do? Are you concerned?

Commissioner Shea:   Absolutely. I would liken it to a powder keg. Hopefully there are enough leaders and calm people to take down the rhetoric, instead of ratcheting it up.

I can tell you that like many departments, it’s going to be all-hands-on-deck for us. We’re going to have everyone ready to go in uniform. And I think the rule here is expect the unexpected. In any major city, protests are second nature. We’re going to be out there, respecting as we always do the right to protest, but protecting against that small number of people who want to take a situation and pour gasoline on it.  Our intention is to allow people to protest whatever the outcomes are, but to have little tolerance for property damage and threats to safety. 


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.