Five things to know about Dermot Shea, the new NYPD commissioner

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) announced that Dermot Shea (center) will be the next Commissioner of the New York Police Department, replacing James O'Neill (left).
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) announced that Dermot Shea (center) will be the next Commissioner of the New York Police Department, replacing James O'Neill (left).
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) announced that Dermot Shea (center) will be the next Commissioner of the New York Police Department, replacing James O'Neill (left).

Five things to know about Dermot Shea, the new NYPD commissioner

He has a lot in common with his predecessor.
November 4, 2019

Dermot Shea has been named commissioner of the New York City Police Department, following NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill’s announcement he’s retiring on Monday.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Shea “a driven man in the best sense. He is driven to make this city safer. He is driven to make this city fairer … he definitely has big shoes to fill, but Dermot Shea is ready.”

Here’s what you need to know about the city’s new top cop.

He’s an NYPD insider

At a City Hall press conference Monday, de Blasio called Shea “one of the best prepared incoming police commissioners that this city has ever seen.” Shea has been with the NYPD for 28 years, since 1991, and is currently the Chief of Detectives, a high-ranking post within the department. The NYPD seems to have been grooming him for the public-facing role for a while, giving him ample time at press conferences, and allowing him to cooperate with glowing profiles like the 2017 Daily News story calling him “one of the NYPD masterminds driving down NYC's already historically low crime rates.”

Before his promotion to chief of detectives, Shea was chief of crime strategies and, under O’Neill’s immediate predecessor Bill Bratton, deputy commissioner of operations. But whatever his title, Shea has long been the NYPD’s numbers guy – overseeing the CompStat program as the city enjoyed continued reductions in crime.

NYPD commissioner hasn’t always been a job for insiders. Lee Brown, commissioner in the early 1990s, who came from the Houston Police Department. Before Bratton’s first stint as commissioner, he started his career in Boston and served as chief of New York City Transit Police before that department was integrated into the NYPD. But de Blasio has preferred to go with known quantities. He brought Bratton back and O’Neill is an NYPD lifer. 

Some police reform advocates are leery of him

On Friday evening, protestors jumped subway turnstiles and marched in Downtown Brooklyn against policing in the subway system. While the NYPD and MTA cops both patrol the trains, it was just the latest sign of discontent among some young, progressive and non-white New Yorkers with how policing is handled in the city. De Blasio praised O’Neill for his work on Neighborhood Policing, a system meant to improve police-community relations, particularly in communities of color where trust in the NYPD is lower. Shea said the program’s continuation was his number one priority.

However, New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, who has oversight of the NYPD as chairman of the public safety committee, was skeptical that Shea would follow O’Neill, who Richards admires. “I’m not positive that Chief Shea will carry out the reforms that are much needed to bring the department to the next level,” Richards told City & State. “His history hasn't shown me that he will shift the needle on policing the way that he should.”

A major criminal justice reform organization, Communities United for Police Reform, also expressed pessimism about Shea’s appointment. “De Blasio's appointment of Dermot Shea, who was reportedly involved in blocking discipline of an officer who was investigated for filing false overtime records, signals that City Hall has no intention of ending broken windows policing or the unprecedented era of police secrecy, cleaning up police corruption or firing and disciplining officers who lie, brutalize and kill – leaving it up to movements to demand this and more,” CPR spokesperson Loyda Colon wrote in a press release.

The cops might be hard to satisfy too

Shea also has to worry about relations within his own department. The two biggest police unions, the Police Benevolent Association and the Sergeants Benevolent Association hated O’Neill and have been calling for his resignation for months, claiming that he was aligned with the liberal mayor against his more conservative cops. The SBA released a statement Monday calling O’Neill “the worst police commissioner in NYPD history.” The union was silent on Shea, but it’s hard to imagine union leadership would like him any less than O’Neill. 

He’s another Irish-American man

Shea grew up in Sunnyside, Queens as one of five children, with a union handyman father. Both his mother and father emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s. At least for a while, the whole family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. 

“This is an American dream story if ever there was one,” de Blasio said Monday. “Dermot was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” 

But he did have, as Shea said himself, service in his DNA. At least one uncle was a cop, and Shea’s brother and cousin both entered the NYPD on the same day as him in 1991. Both have since retired. 

There are a lot of Irish-Americans in the NYPD, and Shea is now the fourth-straight Irish American, white male commissioner. De Blasio faced questions about the lack of diversity at the top Monday, promising that “in the next few years, you’re going to see a lot of leadership elevated that represent the full diversity of New York City.”

Some, like Richards would prefer to see that change now. “I think we missed an opportunity to ensure that well-qualified people of color could rise up to becoming commissioner in this department,” he said.

Shea seems relatively scandal-free

Communities United for Police Reform pointed out that Shea was fingered in a 2018 report for allegedly pressuring a detective to close a case as a favor, which the department adamantly denied. NYPD critics like the Legal Aid society were quick to find fault in the new commissioner as well, blaming him for prioritizing arrests by expanding the gang database and amassing DNA evidence in a press release Monday. But that’s the same work that others praise him for, as the department’s crime statistics continue to fall. As the crime stats guru, Shea’s name has been invoked in some of the occasional criticisms that the department cooks the books, but nobody has been able to make a strong, public case that’s true. 

The married father of three was mentioned in an NYPD scandal back in 2011, but Shea reportedly was the good guy – demoted by a crooked chief after refusing to bend union rules.

Overall, it seems that Shea will follow in O’Neill’s footsteps as a commissioner who isn’t entirely comfortable in the spotlight. His statements on Monday were predictably bland.

“We cannot and will not rest until all New Yorkers feel safe,” he said.

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