The new commissioner of the New York City Police Department will take over the leadership of a force facing a surge in officer suicides and rancor among the rank and file over the firing of a former officer accused of choking Eric Garner to death.
Commissioner James O’Neill, 61, announced his resignation Monday after three years to take a job in the private sector. NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea will replace O’Neill, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Here are some of the issues Shea will face when he takes over December 1:
A rising number of NYPD officer suicides
After the department’s seventh suicide this year, in July, O’Neill told CNN his biggest fear was that another officer would take his life.
Three more officers would die by suicide after that. They included an off-duty sergeant who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound last month, the NYPD said.
Eight of the suicides have happened since June, the department said.
The department averaged between four and five officer suicides a year, O’Neill said earlier this year. The suicide of police officers is not an issue unique to the NYPD, but the recent rash of suicides has rattled the force. Leaders are trying to find ways to help officers overcome the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health.
“Am I scared? I’ve got to be honest with you. Yeah, I am,” O’Neill told CNN during an interview in August at One Police Plaza in Manhattan. “Maybe there’s somebody out there right now that’s in crisis or approaching crisis and just unable or unwilling to come forward.”
In a news conference Monday at City Hall, Shea said the suicide of one officer is “one too many.”
“We have to do everything that we can to ensure that that number is zero,” he said. “We have a robust program in effect already.”
Possible backlash from Pantaleo’s firing
In 2014, police tried to arrest Garner, who was allegedly selling loose cigarettes illegally on Staten Island. In video of the arrest, Pantaleo can be seen wrapping one arm around Garner’s shoulder and the other around his neck before jerking him back and pulling him to the ground. Garner could be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” as Pantaleo forced his head to the sidewalk. Garner died shortly afterward. His dying words became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
A grand jury in New York declined to indict Pantaleo that year. The Justice Department declined to bring civil rights charges earlier this year.
O’Neill had said he faced pressure from many sides and acknowledged if he were still an officer, he probably would not be happy with the firing.
“I’m not going to stand up here and say it didn’t weigh on me heavily. I think it weighed on all New Yorkers. It weighed on everybody in the NYPD,” he said Monday.
He added: “I know it was the right decision.”
Pantaleo, who has denied using a chokehold, is suing New York City, the NYPD and O’Neill, his attorney Stuart London told CNN.
Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, which represents nearly 50,000 active and retired officers, criticized O’Neill, saying he chose “politics and his own self-interest over the police officers he claims to lead.”
“The damage is already done. The NYPD will remain rudderless and frozen, and Commissioner O’Neill will never be able to bring it back. Now it is time for every PO in this city to make their own choice,” Lynch said in the statement in August.
In a statement Monday, Lynch said the association looks forward to working with 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.”
Morale was strong among officers, Shea said.
Surge in anti-Semitic crimes and other issues
Shea will face a climate where police say there has been a rise in reported anti-Semitic hate crimes.
More than half the hate crimes reported in the city were anti-Semitic, the NYPD said in September. The incidents, which were reported through September 1, were mostly acts of vandalism, with graffiti or swastikas scrawled on places, including synagogues, Shea said then.
There were 152 reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes through September 1, compared to 93 during the same period last year, NYPD statistics show.
Shea also faces scrutiny over efforts to reform the department’s Special Victims Division, which handles sexual assaults.
Last year, an internal investigation by the city criticized the way the department handled sexual assaults, citing issues with an understaffed Special Victims Division.
Shea oversaw the review of the division that resulted in increased staffing and training and facilities, the NYPD said in November.
Shea said the reforms over the past 18 months have been well-documented.
“We hear the advocates. We’re not done,” he said. “Sexual assaults survivors are of the utmost importance to us.”
Shea said officials meet with victims’ advocates regularly and that he plans to meet with them next week.
The NYPD has criticized a new bail reform plan that will eliminate cash bail in New York in some cases starting next year, CNN affiliate WCBS reported. The plan calls for those who are arrested on low-level misdemeanor or non-violent felonies to be released without bail until trial, the station reported.