On Friday, the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea about whether that tragedy has lessons for the NYPD for coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

PERF previously spoke to Commissioner Shea for the April 17 and March 26 editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report. 

Chuck Wexler:  9/11 happened on this day in 2001.  What was today like for you?

Commissioner Shea: It hits you today. You kind of push it to the back of your mind, but when this day rolls around, you’re back into talking about it and being there and seeing the families. All those memories come back. It’s hard to believe it’s been 19 years.

Wexler:  You’ve lost more members of the NYPD during the pandemic than you did on 9/11. How are those two events similar and how are they different?

Commissioner Shea:  There’s a parallel, because you have to fight to get through both of them, and there’s certainly the need for resilience and a lot of rebuilding.  But they are very different circumstances. 9/11 was an instantaneous shock to the country. We lost 23 members of the NYPD. The Fire Department lost over 300. And it rocked the country into war. New York City, particularly Lower Manhattan, was devastated.

COVID has been a different kind of fight. We’ve lost 46 members of the NYPD, most of them civilian and some of them volunteers. Eight of the 46 were uniformed members. And we’re still in the COVID pandemic, although it’s a smaller threat to us now. But COVID and the protests have rolled together into one hell of a year, and it’s hard to pull them apart.

The parallel I draw is that you see the best in people at the worst of times. You see the work that is being done on a daily basis, certainly on crime right now, as well as building relationships, day in and day out.

We’re fighting an invisible enemy, but I argue that things are not nearly as bad as they’re being portrayed right now. We have to fight that narrative. I’m out in different parts of the city every day – minority neighborhoods, all different ethnicities and religions. I come across people who love the police and want the police to be around. Sometimes people don’t like the police, but they certainly all want safety and are overwhelmingly supportive of the NYPD. You wouldn’t know that by attending one of the protests or reading a lot of what’s in the papers. That’s some of the fight that we’re in the middle of.

Wexler:  Does the challenge presented by COVID feel daunting?

Commissioner Shea:  In many ways it feels surreal. I don’t like the word daunting because it sounds defeatist to me. I have no doubt that we’re going to come out on top of this. It’s a tough road, but with all the obstacles we face during this tough time, it’ll be the cops who lead the way out of this, at least in New York.

Wexler:  What is driving the increase in shootings and homicides in New York City?

Commissioner Shea:  I think that question will be written about for years to come. People want to know definitively, but I don’t think it’s that easy. I have my opinions, but we’ll hold up data, and different people will argue about the same numbers.

Do I think COVID has something to do with some of what’s going on now? I do. But I think there are bigger issues at play. COVID essentially shut down the courts here in New York State, but even before COVID, there already were very low prison populations. Bail reform at the end of last year dropped the prison population 20% in a month. We had an increase in crime in January and February, and then COVID hit.

So COVID hit us, we had 20% of our workforce out sick, and we were busy doing social distancing enforcement. Crime plummeted on paper, but it was like a wildfire under the surface, heating up and ready to explode. The courts were shut down. There were no grand juries, and nobody was going into prison. Advocates were using a situation to get more and more people out.

This continues to go on, and then you have George Floyd’s death in May. In May we hit 100 shootings in New York City, which was a five-year high. That was a warning sign, and that was before the protests. As the protests hit, we didn’t seem to have a fan across the country. Even our greatest friends and allies went underground. If they popped their head out, they were getting doxed; they were having protests at their homes. So it was not an easy time in law enforcement.

In New York City, that led to a rash of reform bills that were passed, and the “defunding” movement. We took a 60% cut to our overtime. That’s just as summer arrived and people were starting to come out. But there were no bars, restaurants, or sporting events open.

In many ways it was the perfect storm, with the lowest incarceration levels, basically block parties on every block, and, you could argue, an environment in which the cops’ hands were tied in many ways. Because if they did anything, they were getting crucified. They ran into the most anti-police environment that I’ve seen in 30 years, where every single interaction was under a microscope. There were no summonses or simple arrests. Every encounter turned into a fight.

That was June and July, and it’s starting to calm down. We’re far from getting the violence under control, but there are some positives in terms of the city coming back to a little bit of normalcy. The workforce has come back. We still have obstacles in terms of resources. There’s a heck of a lot of guns on the street. Last week we had more gun arrests in one week than we’ve had in 25 years.

Wexler: What accounts for so many guns on the street?

Commissioner Shea:  People are not in jail. It’s very difficult to get someone into jail, and it’s very easy to get someone out. The balance has been upset. With that as the backdrop, you have a lot of people on the street carrying guns with the misconception that they weren’t going to be addressed by the NYPD. But they certainly were, between our detectives, gang units, intelligence bureau, and patrol cops. I think the arrest numbers speak for themselves.

I got pretty heated a couple weeks ago when people said the cops were “pulling back.”  I found it offensive. Some harebrained laws were passed that intentionally legislated out many arrests that we could make, and they cut the budget with a sledgehammer, and then they point to arrests being down and say that the cops were pulling back.

I’m extremely proud of a lot of things that the officers are doing. They are answering the call with flying colors in terms of responding to every challenge in front of them and putting themselves in harm’s way. We still have this law that was passed in New York City that makes it a crime to come into contact with a person in certain ways. Despite that, they’re putting themselves in harm’s way and they’re doing everything they can to keep the people of New York City safe.

We just got grand juries opened up. We have cases backed up in the most needed areas on the most violent people since March. So as soon as we get a couple long-term grand juries open and get a few cases in, I think it’s going to turn the tide pretty significantly. Number one, it will get bad people off the streets. And number two, it will send a message to a lot of the gang members that the sheriff is open for business and back in town on the court side. It’s slow steps, but we’re moving toward a better place.

Wexler:  New York City is about to enter a new phase with the schools reopening, but there’s potential for another wave of COVID this fall and winter. What lessons from the past seven months will help you manage through the coming months?

Commissioner Shea:  We’re anticipating a ramping up of protests leading up to the election as well.

When COVID first hit in February and March, there was so much unknown. I think we’re in a little bit of a better place on many levels. Certainly we’re in a better position in terms of equipment like masks, cleaning agents, or thermometers.

I think there’s a little less unknown in terms of treatment at the hospitals. You still see people coming down with COVID, but you hear a lot better results in terms of mortality.

When you look at how we operate compared to six months ago, when you go into facilities you’re getting screened for your temperature. And we have testing now that we didn’t have then. All of that infrastructure is in place now, and it wasn’t six months ago.

If you do come down positive, we do internal contact tracing to find out how you caught it, where you had visited recently, and who you work with. We reach out to those people to find out if they have any symptoms and tell them to take extra precautions. We caught one small outbreak in Brooklyn last week with a gang unit that had ties to a local detective squad, and the total was seven people with the virus. We feel that we’re much better at identifying that and cutting it off before it expands.

We’ve changed how we operate indoors in terms of spacing and social distancing, and we’re still doing a heck of a lot of meetings virtually whenever possible. Even Compstat is smaller, and we don’t bring as many people down into that room.

All these things start to add up. I like to prepare for the worst and hope you don’t need it in terms of that second wave, but I think we’re in a better place. And we’ll have to be nimble and adapt, as always.


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.