Former NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill's Reflections

Dec 19, 2019

WBGO's Bob Hennelly interviews NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill days before he retires from the force
Credit Michel Friang

Last month, New York City's Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill retired after almost 37 years on the job. As the NYPD's top cop for the last three years, he oversaw the department's rollback of stop and frisk and a continued decline in crime.

WBGO's Bob Hennelly sat down with O'Neill for an exit interview.

HENNELLY: So, when you came on the force you come on through Transit what were the atmospherics, what was the city like? That was a long time ago.

O’NEILL: I joined the Transit Police on January 5, 1980. So, when I leave next Saturday is my last day I will be a month short of 37 years. And this city was a totally different place. You ride the subway now you, might have complaints about it. But bring yourself back 37 years where there was no air conditioning, no heat. The doors didn’t usually work. Graffiti all over the trains. When I first came on, I went to District 1 which is in mid-town. I was there for three weeks training. And then they sent us up to District 3 which is up on 146th and St. Nicholas. And I did train patrol, 8:00 pm at night until 4 a.m. in the morning by myself and we rode the A line from 168 and Broadway to Jay Street in Brooklyn. We did about three round trips a night. You either did that or you did the D line from 34th and Sixth Avenue up to Bedford Park Boulevard in the Bronx.

HENNELLY: One of the things throughout your career is that you have had a reputation for relationships with people outside of law enforcement. Did that come to you early on, the idea that if you are going to be part of preserving law and order, peace and tranquility, it was going to be through those relationships?

O’NEILL: That came quick. And I realized that doing train patrol. Who is riding the subway back in 1983 at 2:30 in the morning? Believe it or not, people going and forth to work. And during train patrol we had all sorts of rules. One of the rules was you could only ride in a car for three stops. After three stops you had to move to another car. So, every time I moved to another car of course you take a look in and see who is there and mostly what I saw was a look of relief that there was a cop in this car for at least a couple of stops and I can catch my breath and feel safe. At that point I knew that this was the right job. As a transit cop you are not in a car. You and not in an rmp. You are at the station. You are riding the train. You are walking the platform. They had a couple of cars but not many. And you are interacting with people all day long, whether it is asking directions or engaging in conversation. In some ways, I doubt this will ever happen, I think all the new cops coming in the academy should spend six months in the academy.

HENNELLY: I was just wondering if you remember the first time you had to use force to preserve order and protect people?

O’NEILL: “I do. I was on train patrol. I was between Broadway and Nassau and High Street in Brooklyn on the A train and there was an assault in progress and I had to come up and use force to restrain the person who was attacking what turned out to be and off-duty cop. HENNELLY: How far into your career was that? O’NEILL: A couple of months into train patrol.

HENNELLY: Did you ever have to fire your weapon in the course of your duties?

O’NEILL: No, but when I was a CO of the 44 we responded to a gun run in Shakespeare Ave. and we got out of the car and they had the description of the gun who supposedly had the gun. They said the gun was in a brown paper bag. Low and behold, we pull up and a guy matching that description holding a brown paper bag [is there] and we chase him onto Shakespeare and he turned around and fired at us and Officer Kevin Costello, he has retired, he returned fire twice. Nobody got hit and we were able to apprehend the bad guy on the second floor.

HENNELLY: By the numbers when it comes to homicide what have we seen?

O’NEILL: In 1990 it peaked at 2,245. 2017 we had under 300. 2018 we had under 300. Right now we are at 291, we are probably going to be a little over 300. But look at the homicide rate per hundred thousand. Right now, we are at 3.4 per hundred thousand. Back in 1990 it was 30 per hundred thousand.

HENNELLY: I have noticed from covering the police and their engagement with the community that beat cops had an attitude toward undocumented people that if you were working to support your family they were on your side. They weren’t trying to be the federal immigration police.

O’NEILL: “There was an executive order in the 1990s from Giuliani that City employees…were not allowed to ask peoples immigration status upon encountering them. I think that is good. It is estimated that there are 500,000 undocumented people in New York City and anything I have tried to do over the last three years to build trust with all New Yorkers including undocumented people. They have to feel safe enough to come to us to report crimes so we can investigate them and keep them safe too. I think that is an important part of who the NYPD is.

HENNELLY: Over the arc of your career starting in the subways you have seen the change when it come to the mentally ill. There was a period when we reached a consensus, after Geraldo Rivera’s reporting, about de-institutionalizing the severely mentally ill and we were supposed to come up with group homes, but we never did the group home part. Can you talk about this de-institutionalization trend, which is really a national issue, and how it affects the work of the police. Across the country we are seeing the severely mentally ill in libraries, in transit and in the prisons. What does that do for policing?

O’NEILL: There are many issues that we deal with that are well beyond policing issues. They are societal issues and dealing with the mentally ill is one of them. I came from the 25 Precinct. We just engaged in a pilot project where we are putting co-response vehicles up there. That is two police officers with a mental health worker, a counselor in a car and putting them in the 911 cue to respond to calls for people with mental health issues. That’s important. We are putting all of our patrol officers-- I think we are up to 12,000 now--- through crisis intervention training which is a course that the cops like. It is a four-day course by an outside vendor. It is letting the cops know how to identify somebody that may have some mental health issues and more importantly how tom get them the help that they need.

HENNELLY: We have that tragic case up in the Bronx where FDNY EMT Arroyo was allegedly killed by Jose Gonzalez, whose father had previously gone to the police looking for help with his son because he was not taking his medication. Do we need to have a broader conversation here?

O’NEILL: I don’t know the particulars here, but you say he went to the police. Where do we turn? If there is an issue, we bring that person to the hospital and then it’s up to the hospital to make an evaluation, a medical and mental health evaluation whether or not that person needs additional treatment. And then if they do need additional treatment what is that treatment? This is a national issue. I think the United States is a great country, but we need to work harder at dealing with people that have mental issues. There is an expectation that they get help and if they go for help that they tell the truth which can be very difficult at times. And if they get prescribed medication that they take that medication. That’s a lot to ask of somebody that needs health. We need to do more for people with mental health challenges.

HENNELLY: What do you look for in a police officer? What are the qualifications? If you run into someone who wants to be a police officer what do you ask them?

O’NEILL: First of all, you have to like people. That’s the essence of the job and you have to be able to communicate and if you are a twenty year old person you might not have that skill we can build upon that but you have to want to come into this job to help people, to make a difference and that maybe cliché, but it is the truth. That’s why most people become cops. We are not making a ton of dough here. The benefits are ok but if you are going to take this job your heart better be in it and you better want to help people and you also have to adapt to the work schedule. This is not a 9 to 5 job. I know the job I am in is not a 9 to 5 job and I know the cops out there working day tours, 4 pm to 12 midnights, working birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, nobody has off on New Year’s Eve. And I am sure if you talked to anybody else who held this job, if you spoke to Ray Kelly or talk to Bill Bratton this is an all-consuming job.

HENNELLY: Thank for you service.

O’NEILL: No problem.