On Tuesday afternoon, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, William Bratton, walked into City Hall’s blue room one after another, smiling. Despite Bratton’s announcement that he would be leaving in September for a private-sector job - a move Bratton called bittersweet but necessary given his desire to take on other opportunities - both he and de Blasio said they were pleased to introduce Bratton’s successor: Chief of Department James O’Neill, who joined the force in 1983.
De Blasio went so far as to say the administration will “celebrate a transition filled with continuity.” Meanwhile, Bratton said O’Neill’s move to commissionership and plans by several other NYPD leaders to remain in leadership roles would ensure the core policing team he cultivated and had success with would remain intact. First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker and Deputy Commissioner of Counterterrorism and Intelligence John Miller will remain in their roles, while Housing Chief Carlos Gomez will be promoted to O’Neill’s old chief of department post.
So, beyond his more than three decades at the NYPD, who is O’Neill? Here are five things to know about the NYPD’s incoming commissioner:
1. He’s had Bratton’s support - for a while
Back in 2008, O’Neill was transferred out of the narcotics unit he oversaw because some of its officers were caught paying informants with drugs rather than cash, according to The Wall Street Journal. For advice, he turned to Bratton, who he knew from his time running the video unit for the transit police and who was then in the private sector.
While giving a Tedx talk in 2015, O’Neill said he was banished to the detective bureau for about six years. During his presentation, the chief thanked Bratton, who, once he returned to the helm of the NYPD, promoted O’Neill to chief of patrol and then to his most recent chief of department post. “So talk about failure; talk about rising up out of the ashes,” he said. “I’m a lucky guy that Bill Bratton came back, and I’m a lucky guy to be in this position.”
Based on Bratton’s praise for O’Neill when discussing his departure, there was speculation he wanted the chief to succeed him. And de Blasio’s press office confirmed the administration did not conduct a national search and only considered O’Neill and First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker for the job.
2. He may be more palatable to City Council members pushing police reform
New York City Council Public Safety Commissioner Vanessa Gibson said that when it came to legislation, she and her colleagues sometimes found Bratton difficult to work with and not always willing to compromise. She said O’Neill did not share this characteristic and had proved to be easy to talk to.
“I think he understands the role that we play, and the fact that we, you know, introduce legislation for a reason,” Gibson told reporters at City Hall Tuesday. “I think it could be a good thing. I’m giving him, obviously, a lot of room and a lot of optimism because I just don’t know yet exactly where he stands on many of the police reform bills, the reporting bills.”
Councilman Ritchie Torres told Politico New York he was looking forward to working with a commissioner who does not have a larger-than-life persona, and who might be more willing to collaborate on legislation.
3. He’s the architect of the city’s neighborhood policing program
During his first press conference as incoming commissioner, O’Neill said the neighborhood policing initiative he helped develop is the “heart and soul” of his vision. He said protests that followed the death of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island resident who died after being placed in a chokehold by an officer, and the slaying two officers in Brooklyn - Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos - by a man seeking revenge convinced him the NYPD needed to evolve and improve its relationship with the communities it served.
In response, O’Neill worked to develop a neighborhood policing program where some officers are routinely assigned to the same sectors in the precinct so they can get acquainted with the community and specific police personnel are tapped to manage known community concerns. By fall, O’Neill said this initiative will be expanded to more than half of the city’s precincts and in all of its housing commands.
“This is the man that created that vision of neighborhood policing, and he is the man who will see that vision through fully for the good of all New Yorkers,” de Blasio said at today’s press conference. “He is ready to take this department where it’s never been before in terms of a truly deep and consistent bond between police and community.”
4. He’s gone after gangs
O’Neill reiterated his belief that “a relatively small percentage of the population” is responsible for majority of the city’s violent crime today - and vowed to continue going after this population. He’s trotted out this message before, saying the department engaged in rapid gang takedowns to “set a tone” before the summer started that violence will not be tolerated. He and other police officials vowed in May to make a number of other arrests before July 4 - but O’Neill also stressed that the work came after long-term, intensive investigations and did not involve sweeps.
“There’s a ‘no snitch’ thing that’s swept the country over the last couple of years. We have 30 percent of the people that get shot in New York City refuse to cooperate with us,” he said during his Tedx presentation. “We can’t possibly let that go.”
5. He doesn’t come from a policing family
O’Neill said during his Tedx talk that he does not come from a policing family - while growing up in East Flatbush, he knew an uncle who was a lieutenant, and a friend of his father’s worked in the 67th Precinct. Rather, O’Neill said he wanted to be a police officer because, in the words of one of his two sons, he’s a chronic do-gooder.
“I bounced around a couple of colleges. I got out with a degree in government, wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do something where I could make a difference,” O’Neill said.
He wound up joining the transit police in 1983 and has since worked as a commanding officer of three precincts: the Vice Enforcement Division, the Narcotics Division and the Fugitive Enforcement Division.