There’s an old saying that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The selection of the NYPD’s newest commissioner shows that New York City’s police force doesn’t exactly believe in that mantra.
Dermot Shea, who served as the NYPD’s Chief of Detectives for more than one year of his nearly three-decade career, has been appointed to become the next NYPD commissioner. Now-former NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced his retirement on Monday, paving the way for Shea to take his place.
But Shea seemed to be bringing the same type of racially tinged baggage with him into the commissioner’s office that O’Neill was likely looking to shed while plotting his escape from a police department that’s been dripping with accusations of racism.
That much seemed to be confirmed in May when the New York Daily News reported that Shea guided his detectives to profile “360 black and Hispanic men” and blindly swab each of them in a desperate attempt to match DNA in a rape case that ended with the controversial conviction of a Black man who has maintained his innocence.
The Daily News wrote in part that “The men who were swabbed were selected because they had been previously arrested in Howard Beach, sources said. A number of them told The News in interviews that they were upset by their treatment at the hands of investigators.”
When the City Council had Shea testify about how he had his detectives racially profiling “Black and Hispanic men,” he didn’t have much to say.
Shea was asked if his detectives “engage in DNA dragnets where they sweep up a bunch of people based on their race in order to take their DNA?” He simply replied, “No,” and refused to expound beyond that.
Undeterred, Donovan Richards, co-chairman of the council’s public safety committee, asked Shea if targeting people’s DNA based on race is illegal.
“As I’ve said, we do not participate in dragnets,” Shea responded with a cagey answer before going on to defend what sure sounded like racial profiling.
“We are not randomly collecting people’s DNA,” Shea said at the time. “If we did there would be a database of millions and millions of people. I am very comfortable with where we are given the size, the small number and that it is uniquely tied to crimes.”
The NYPD has only had two African American commissioners since 1901. Lee Patrick Brown was the most recent Black commissioner and served from 1990-1992, which corresponded with the mayorship of David N. Dinkins, New York City’s first and only African American chief executive. With the previous seven commissioners having been all white men, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appointed Shea, apparently thought there was nothing wrong with continuing that tradition devoid of diversity that also spawned Stop and Frisk and the Broken Windows policing, unconstitutional and racist policies that disproportionately target Black and Hispanic New Yorkers.
“The National Action Network and civil rights leaders across New York City are seeking an immediate meeting with newly appointed NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea to discuss current policing policies as it pertains to the treatment of Black and Brown communities in New York City,” Sharpton said in a brief statement released Monday afternoon. “We’re hoping that he is open to having an open dialogue with us and working together to help put an end to unlawful policing practices while increasing accountability as it pertains to NYC’s black and brown communities.”
O’Neill was stepping down under a cloud of controversy following his years-delayed firing of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner by employing an illegal chokehold over the nonviolent alleged offense of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Pantaleo was finally fired in August, more than five years after Garner was killed. One of O’Neill’s final acts as commissioner was approving a new crackdown on public transit fare evasion to deploy at least 500 police officers to subway stations across the city that critics say criminalizes poverty and perpetuates racialized policing practices under the guise of creating a safer environment.
Local civil rights groups blasted O’Neill after learning he was retiring.
“In spite of millions of public and private dollars spent on NYPD public relations and spin, Commissioner O’Neill’s legacy includes doubling down on abusive broken windows policing, expanding police secrecy and refusing to publicly release the names of officers who kill and brutalize, launching unprecedented digital surveillance operations, and refusing to discipline and fire most officers who harm New Yorkers – including most of the officers who engaged in misconduct related to the NYPD killings of Delrawn Small, Eric Garner and others,” Loyda Colon, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform & Co-Director of Justice Committee, said in a statement.