When Bill de Blasio was elected mayor eight years ago, he won New Yorkers over by pitching a progressive vision for the city that included transforming the New York Police Department through sweeping reforms. But just a month after his landslide victory, de Blasio appointed as commissioner William Bratton, a veteran police leader who had already helmed the NYPD under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and who had also run the Boston and Los Angeles police departments.
Bratton, an old-school cop with tremendous influence in New York politics, was best known in the city for having pioneered CompStat, a controversial crime-tracking system, and for having ushered in an era of “broken windows” policing targeting low-level, quality-of-life offenses. He was also widely perceived as the mind behind stop-and-frisk, the racially discriminatory police tactic that de Blasio had criticized throughout the campaign.
Bratton’s appointment dealt the first of many blows to those who had put their hopes in de Blasio to reform New York police. “That was an immediate red flag that things weren’t going to be as progressive on the policing front as the campaign had seemed to suggest,” Darius Charney, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who led litigation against stop-and-frisk, told The Intercept last year. “That was a bad sign for those of us in the police accountability movement.”
Now, as New Yorkers vote to elect their next mayor after a campaign that was once again defined by policing issues, the question of who will be tapped to run the NYPD looms large. The next mayor’s pick for police commissioner is likely to set the tone for the new administration’s approach to public safety, which became a central focus in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary election.
All eight leading candidates indicated that they would replace current Commissioner Dermot Shea, who has faced an onslaught of criticism for his handling of last year’s George Floyd protests. The Intercept asked the top candidates whom they would select as commissioner, what they would be looking for as they fill the role, and whether they support restricting the commissioner’s authority. Five of the campaigns responded to The Intercept’s questions, repeating comments they have made publicly about seeking diversity in leadership or someone from outside the department without naming prospects for the role.
The new commissioner will take over at a time of heightened tensions over policing in the city and amid legislative efforts to reform that position’s authority over the department. The commissioner currently has the last word on whether and how to discipline officers who have been found to engage in various abuses. While the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent body that investigates allegations of police abuse, can make disciplinary recommendations, the commissioner has regularly been more lenient, departing from CCRB guidance in 71 percent of cases during the last two decades.
Last March, the New York City Council passed a resolution to strip the commissioner of final authority over officer discipline. But doing so would first require repealing a state law that limits independent oversight of police discipline, a proposal currently before lawmakers in Albany. Shea has fiercely opposed this effort; now, the question of officer discipline will be one of the first facing the next mayor and commissioner.
“Ask yourself, ‘Do I trust this person’s plan for managing the NYPD? Do they have the skills and the vision to make New York City safe for me and my family?’” Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the community group Brooklyn Movement Center, told viewers before moderating a recent mayoral forum on policing. “Because we’ve already got a mayor who’s forgotten the job that we sent him to City Hall to do. And we definitely don’t need another.”
Most candidates have indicated support for the call to limit the commissioner’s authority on matters of discipline.
Eric Adams, a former cop who has made his two decades with the department a cornerstone of his campaign, has previously told reporters that he has spoken with three women about the job. A top contender for Adams is reportedly Juanita Holmes, the first female chief of patrol, the highest-ranking Black woman in the department, and a member of a family of cops, with 16 relatives currently employed by the NYPD. A spokesperson for Adams reiterated to The Intercept that the candidate has committed to hiring a police commissioner who is a woman. “More important to him than race or gender though is hiring someone who has lived the life of struggling citizens, understands the needs of struggling citizens, and someone of character who would help transform the NYPD into what it should be,” the spokesperson said. Adams also indicated that he would shift the authority to fire abusive officers from the police commissioner to the mayor himself. He said he is looking for a candidate who is “emotionally intelligent.”
A spokesperson for Andrew Yang said the candidate has always said he would replace Shea with a civilian commissioner from outside the department. “As mayor, I will appoint an NYPD commissioner whose career experience is not primarily in law enforcement, because whoever leads the NYPD in my administration will need to be able to meaningfully reform the culture and support my vision for integrating the department into a larger, more holistic public safety strategy,” Yang said in a statement.
Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary, wrote in a statement to The Intercept that he would “absolutely not” keep Shea in his position. “Especially considering how he overpoliced the BLM protests last summer,” he wrote. Shea repeatedly defended police’s actions last summer, even after officers physically assaulted peaceful protesters, left them with broken noses and fingers, and trapped them in the streets before arresting hundreds of them without probable cause.
Donovan said that he would require all NYPD officers to live in the city and that he would appoint a person of color as commissioner. “In order to build mutual respect between the police and the communities they are policing, it’s critically important that our police force better reflect the communities they are policing, and that starts at the top,” he wrote. The commissioner, he added, would be required to follow disciplinary recommendations made by the CCRB.
Ray McGuire, a former banking executive, wrote in a statement that he would pick a commissioner whose mandate would be to “drive down crime, and hold officers accountable when needed,” focusing on violent crime and instilling “a culture of respect, accountability and proportionality throughout the department,” he wrote. McGuire added that the commissioner would be expected to make decisions that are “fully informed by the findings of the CCRB” and to continue to base disciplinary actions on the NYPD “disciplinary matrix,” a set of disciplining guidelines the city introduced this year to increase transparency in the process.
“In cases in which the commissioner declines to act on the recommendation of the CCRB, that information will be publicly reported,” McGuire added. “And in cases of serious misconduct, if I do not agree with the disciplinary decision of the commissioner, I will be prepared to direct them to take additional actions.”
Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive who has called for a significant reduction to the NYPD’s budget, wrote in an email to The Intercept that she would “immediately” remove Shea and that she would work with community groups and activists “to identify leadership that would be in alignment with the vision for transformation of the NYPD.” She added that “it is important to have a Commissioner that is representative of the communities that have been most harmed by the NYPD.”
Morales also said that she would limit the commissioner’s authority over discipline, “advance increased, timely transparency around police/civilian interactions and implement a democratically elected CCRB with published findings and authority to discipline officers.” She added that “the role of the commissioner should be finding ways to de-escalate the NYPD’s presence in our communities while empowering local groups that are investing in public safety through transformative programs to address gun violence and other violent crime.”
The campaigns of Kathryn Garcia, Maya Wiley, and Scott Stringer did not respond to The Intercept’s queries, though each candidate has made public statements about what they are looking for in a police commissioner.
Garcia, a sanitation commissioner under de Blasio, has spoken before of her experience running a uniformed force. She pledged “zero tolerance” for abusive officers and said that her commissioner would be “someone who has law enforcement experience, but has done the culture change that we need, in another organization.”
Wiley, a civil rights attorney with a mixed record during her own tenure at the helm of the CCRB, has pledged to appoint a civilian to the NYPD top job and to strip the commissioner of final authority over disciplinary matters. “I am going to have a civilian commissioner and a civilian commissioner that’s going to hold the police accountable and make sure we are safe from crime but also from police violence,” Wiley said at a recent debate.
Stringer, the city’s comptroller, also pledged to remove disciplinary authority from the police department and give the CCRB the final say on such matters, as well as expand its investigatory powers. “We know that that this kind of discipline is not discipline, it’s a slap on the wrist,” Stringer said of the current system. “The police commissioner I appoint is going to be somebody who is aligned with my values and my thinking.”
While welcoming calls to restrict the commissioner’s authority on disciplinary matters, police reform advocates told The Intercept they were frustrated by the vague manner in which some candidates talked about the position and cautioned against calls for more diversity in police leadership over more substantial changes. (All three commissioners who served under de Blasio were Irish American men, as was Raymond Kelly, who ran the NYPD throughout Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.)
“Talking about demographics in relationship to commissioner criteria doesn’t seem like the right way to go; it seems like what we should be doing is rethinking what’s the role,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, executive director of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of several community groups. “Whoever the commissioner is, it should be somebody who understands that the NYPD’s role has been outsized and needs to actually be shrunk in the city in order for resources to go where they are needed to build up community safety.”
Monifa Bandele, a longtime community organizer, also stressed that restricting the commissioner’s power over the NYPD would be far more consequential.
“I’m the first one to say that we absolutely need more Black women in leadership throughout the country, on every level of government, but that alone isn’t going to change the conditions in our communities,” Bandele said. “It really is not going to matter who’s the commissioner of the police if they are the sole person responsible for discipline. There needs to be an independent body. The mayor needs to have some power in that, and the City Council needs to have some power in that.”
“It really is not going to matter who’s the commissioner of the police if they are the sole person responsible for discipline. There needs to be an independent body.”
In fact, in a mayoral race that has often left those calling for less policing and more police accountability dissatisfied with the tenor of the debate, many organizers’ focus has shifted toward policy and preparing to put pressure on whichever candidate prevails on Tuesday.
Their skepticism is driven by the memory of how de Blasio let down New Yorkers who had elected him in large part to reform police, as well as a general lack of enthusiasm for even the more progressive candidates.
“I think that everyone is watching the debates with an eye of criticism, like, that sounded like what de Blasio said,” said Bandele. “De Blasio was so completely destructive and poisonous to the movement to actually reform policing, he completely destroyed the trust that communities have in people who talk about wanting to change the safety structures.”
Brandon Holmes, an organizer with the grassroots group Freedom Agenda, which advocates for an end to mass incarceration and has fought to close Rikers Island jail, told The Intercept that many justice reform advocates had developed a deep ambivalence for candidates’ progressive rhetoric.
“The real work is going to have to happen when this person takes office, and the commitments they make on the campaign trail are going to have to turn into action,” he said. “Many of us are just prioritizing accountability and collecting information from candidates so that we can strategize around whoever that nomination is moving forward.”