Dermot Shea: Bill de Blasio’s Republican

Dermot Shea
Dermot Shea
Philip Vukelich
Dermot Shea

Dermot Shea: Bill de Blasio’s Republican

The new NYPD commissioner talks stop and frisk, diversity in the department’s leadership and voting for president in 2016.
February 23, 2020

After less than three months on the job, Dermot Shea is still working on decorating his new office on the top floor of New York City’s stout tower of power, One Police Plaza. On one expansive, wood-paneled wall, the only thing that’s hanging up is an oil painting of a young Theodore Roosevelt, who served as a police commissioner 125 years ago. The patrician Manhattanite Roosevelt may not have much else in common with Shea, who grew up in a Sunnyside, Queens, one-bedroom apartment as the child of Irish immigrants. But like Roosevelt before him, Shea is a Republican.

He did shy away from overt electoral politics, demurring when asked if he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. But Shea has taken quickly to the more political aspects of his job. To borrow a Rooseveltian term, Shea has used his new bully pulpit to criticize the state’s newly enacted bail laws, blaming an increase in the crime rate on a reduction in the number of people being held in jail before trial. 

“I’ve never in my life aspired to politics,” but leading the NYPD must be the closest thing, Shea told City & State during an interview on Tuesday. “People are looking (to you) because you are their police commissioner. And you feel it and you want to do right by everyone.”

Shea already has the easy-going charm of a politician, and as he relaxed into a cushioned chair to talk to City & State for 20 minutes, his face seemed naturally tuned to a smile.

I want to start out asking about the officers that were shot a couple of weeks ago. How are they doing? Have you checked in and talked to them recently?

Yeah. I talked to them, obviously that night, and then a couple days later checked in with them. They’re fine, which is really the miracle of the story.

The first one is sitting in the driver’s seat and the guy comes up and the bullet just travels across the bottom of his chin, and then hits him in the neck. We looked at it. And then I came back 10 minutes later and it was stitched up. You couldn’t tell anything; it was just swollen. Somebody said, “Well, you look kind of like Kirk Douglas now.” And he said, “Who’s Kirk Douglas?” (Laughs.) And then the next day, the guy got hit in the arm and like literally no damage, other than his tattoo.

Does it feel more dangerous to be a police officer today than it was in the past? A couple of the union bosses have said that it’s getting more dangerous.

I’m not sure. I’ll have 29 years in April, and I’ve been to too many scenes of – you know – over the years. You always have in the back of your mind to keep safe. Is it more or less now? You know, the climate changes. (But) tell that to a cop that was around when cops were getting assassinated in the early ’70s. There’s a long view and a long picture. And it’s always a dangerous job at times.

I can see you’re connected to the history of this job. You have the Teddy Roosevelt painting, you sit behind Teddy Roosevelt’s desk.

Yeah. I did nothing (to decorate) this room. Absolutely nothing. I’ll eventually put up a few pictures over there. Jimmy (O’Neill) stole a few pictures off that wall that his mother had given him, so I couldn’t really blame him. There certainly is a lot of history and I come from the mindset (that) the job is bigger than you. It’s not necessarily about me, I don’t think. There’s a rich tradition here that is always floating around in the background.

You mentioned before that the police climate changes over time. At your swearing-in ceremony, you seemed quite proud of the fact that the department is making fewer stops these days. Does that mean that the department overpolices in some cases? Could there be a further reduction?

I got a call in January of ’14: “Come upstairs, Commissioner (William) Bratton wants to see you.” And I laughed because I was in my driveway digging out (from) like two or three feet of snow. So if you look, January ’14 – I was upstate at the time – there was a big storm and I said, “I’m not going to be right upstairs.” But eventually when I got in, he put me in charge of CompStat. One day, I’ll look back and that’s probably one of the things that I’ll be proud of, for all this. In terms of how we changed, (there used to be) 600,000 stops (and) 400,000 arrests (annually). Not only did we cut all that, but we drove shootings, murders, robberies, burglaries – you name it – down to levels that probably, if we were honest, none of us thought we could get to – to a point in New York City where we’re counting days without a shooting.

When you run a precinct or you’re around long enough, you wake up and you text, shoot emails to each other. “Look what happened in the Bronx last night. Look what happened in Brooklyn.” We would be used to waking up and (hearing about) 10 or 20 shootings on a weekend. Now, you know we’re counting days.

And it really is transformational, the precision piece, which can be frustrating at times, to be honest, because when you talk about mass incarceration and real periods of New York City history, we’ve done a lot to reform how we police over the last six, seven years. And, you know, somebody will look back on that one day and say “What was this period here?” But it was really the period where smarter policing, efficient policing, changing metrics, using data. We had so much information available to us, but it wasn’t being used. We organized it, we got it into the hands of the people. And then we held them responsible, you know, so it was CompStat a different way. It was very effective.

Part of the story is stop and frisk, which has been talked about a lot recently. And although the numbers are way down from the historic highs, we actually saw an increase last year. Is that a concern to you?

That is a loaded question. Because if I say no, hypothetically, the headline is “Commissioner Shea is not concerned with the 20% rise.”

It was 688,000, I think. (Stop and frisks peaked in 2011, with 685,724 stops). We’ve now had a four- to five-year period where they fluctuate between 10,000 and 15,000 (stops).

There is no right number. It’s got to be done correctly. It’s got to be done constitutionally. I think we’re in a good place – identifying who’s driving crime in New York City, not just shootings, but everything, and attacking it with precision. You know, we used to be happy getting a gun off the street. I remember when we first started, jeez, maybe ’15 or ’16, tracking gun arrests, and looking at, you know, what’s the price of carrying a gun in New York City? And does it differ borough to borough? And how do we get more results from making less gun arrests? Maybe we don’t need to stop 100 people and recover 10 guns. Maybe we just need to stop the two people that are shooting people and build a case on them. So I’m comfortable with where we are and how we police, but it’s always something that we keep looking at. And if we do have fluctuations, to make sure it’s appropriate, constitutional, and why.

You mentioned your predecessor earlier, James O’Neill. You’ve been in the job less than three months, right?

Feels like about 30 years.

Is there anything that you plan to change from his leadership, or anything that you have changed already?

Well, he was my police commissioner, but he was a friend too. I met him in probably ’95. I was a new sergeant, he was a lieutenant. We actually played hockey together. I was a little better than him. He’ll say the same about me. But we had a mutual, healthy good respect for each other.

I think you have to continually evolve and change. Everything is changing around us. Laws are changing. Attitudes are changing. So if you’re standing still, you’re probably falling behind. So we were constantly looking at – I mean, the bail reform was a good example of, how do we continue to evolve with laws? How do we do everything we can to keep people safe? You look at the Raise the Age law a couple of years ago. That was put into place, but really just fully now phased-in in the last year. So 16 years old, 17 years old, where they used to be considered adults, they’re now juveniles. We have to adapt. I’ve spoken a lot about the youth strategy. How do we get away from a system where we have kids with 10 or 20 arrests? And, you know, I don’t know definitively that we’re going to succeed, but I know definitively that we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that we give (the) kids of this city, wherever they grow up, a fighting chance. How do we connect to them? How do we connect them to other services outside the police department? How do we mentor them?

This is the youth coordination officers that you introduced last month. I didn’t realize that was connected to Raise the Age.

It’s not. But the common denominator is kids here, right? I’ve seen when kids of this city go on the wrong path and how that plays out. We’re in a time now where we have state prisons in New York state (with) pretty low populations historically. We have Rikers lower than I’ve ever seen in my career. And we have to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to maintain that, to keep it heading in that direction, but also not compromising public safety. And if we don’t do everything in our power on the kids side, I think we pay for it for years to come. Of all the things that you can invest money in, I would argue that it’s probably the most worthwhile. That’s the message to the cops too. An incredible opportunity to change people’s lives to impact people’s lives. I don’t think they even realize when they do it at times, but it’s real and it’s there.

We’ve had a couple preliminary meetings. We’ve had a lot of stakeholders in. It’s complicated with the kids, it really is. You’ve got to gain trust and convince everyone else that we’re really out to help the kids and to keep them out of the criminal justice system entirely. So it’s an exciting challenge, but definitely worthwhile.

The last two commissioners were really built from different molds. You had O’Neill who really seemed like I’d see him at a dive bar or something. And then Bratton was a man about town.

(Laughs.) He (O’Neill) would probably like that comment.

And Bratton, he was known for hitting up the 21 Club.

Everyone is different.

Do you see your job as being part of New York society? Do you plan to be out and about?

I’ll tell you a story. I went out to dinner last night with my wife, and one of the workers comes up and said, “Are you the commissioner?” I said, “Actually, I am.” And so we get to talking and he said, “Now the other guy thought so, but he didn’t want to come over. Can I take a picture?” I said, sure. And then he starts talking about Jimmy O’Neill, how he used to come in from way back when. And he said, “I have his picture on the wall.” So I said, ‘All right, you could take my picture, but just put it right above O’Neill’s!” And I texted Jimmy that afterwards. He hasn’t got back to me yet.

Where was that?

It was on 72nd Street. A Spanish-Chinese place, which is typical for New York. La Dinastia.

You recently moved back to Manhattan from Putnam County. Was that for this job? 

Nah, that was before. It was the right time. Next chapter.

Like many people, returning to the city. Speaking of your predecessors, President Donald Trump just pardoned Bernard Kerik, a previous police commissioner.

I did not hear this.

Have you ever talked to Kerik?

(Det. Martin Brown Lee, who was monitoring the interview jumps in: “I'm going to pause this for one second and tell (Shea), you cannot talk about this, OK?”)

There you go.

That’s fine. If you didn’t even know about it –

I didn’t know about it. Funny.

Speaking of which, you’re one of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s only Republican appointees. Are you ever bothered by the the mayor’s demonization of Republicans?

No. I got this question at a press conference, some variation of it. When you turn on the TV these days, a lot of people instantly turn the channel because they’re tired of the one extreme or another. I think that labeling people – “Because you’re X, you must think these ways’ – isn’t helpful. I make my own judgments in line with that line of thinking. No issues, obviously. And I made a joke, you know, that the mayor diversified. I have a warped sense of humor. I have gotten along with him well, and I think diversity of thought is healthy for everyone.

Did you vote for Trump in 2016?

I don’t get into my public – I think that’s a sacred right. I did vote, but I keep my vote to myself. I asked my daughter, ‘Who’d you vote for?’ and she told me the same thing. So it must run in the family.

You’re one of our most powerful New Yorkers now – a new addition to our New York City Power 100 list. Have you felt a different perspective on the city since becoming police commissioner? Have you felt like you have a larger responsibility to the 8.6 million people here? 

Absolutely. You do feel it immediately. And I’m not one to shy away from responsibility. And I’m not one to bump my head on the ceiling as I’m walking through a doorway either. But this position is bigger than any one person who was honored enough to be a placeholder. You feel it immediately. The people in New York make sure of that – at events, emails, walking up to you in the street. You feel it and you want to do right by everyone. It’s a tremendous honor and responsibility, it really is.

There’s only been two black commissioners in the history of the NYPD, and never a Latino. What are you doing to make sure that you’re hearing the concerns of black and Latino New Yorkers?

Diversity is very important. People want to associate with people that they can relate to. Not to say that they can’t if they don’t look similar, but I think it’s clearly helpful. And I think it’s important for people to have role models throughout New York City.

When you look at where we stand, when you look at the people, the upper echelon at the department, I was clearly cognizant of it as I was tapping in. Probably some of the easiest decisions I had was finding the right people for the right spots, and also considering diversity, because we have an amazing bench, we really do. So when you look at people like (Chief of Patrol) Fausto Pichardo. When you look at Martine Materasso, who’s the first (woman) in charge of counterterrorism in this city. When you look at Rodney Harrison, the first African American chief of detectives, I think the future is very bright. And there’s a lot of talent coming up behind me. There really is.

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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