NYPD is ready to turn the page with communities of color, commissioner says

Tom Winter and Erik Ortiz

The New York Police Department, roiled in recent weeks by accusations of assault on protesters and investigations into officers' conduct, is hoping to turn the page with communities of color that have repeatedly been stopped and frisked by looking to hold its officers to a higher standard while turning to the justice system for help as it tackles a rise in shootings, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Wednesday.

Shea acknowledged the community backlash against the nation's largest police force, speaking with "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt on Wednesday atop the police department's heavily fortified headquarters in lower Manhattan.

But during the wide-ranging interview, he also said that a recent decision to turn over part of the police department's budget for city youth programs was the easiest one he has had to make as commissioner and that he believes the police are just scratching the surface of crime-fighting if they can develop more trust with the communities they serve.

Shea's announcement Monday to disband an anti-crime unit that proactively sought out illegal guns on the street was "not an easy decision" and "not without risk," he said, given the city's 26 percent increase in shootings this year.

"I do know that we can do things differently. I do know that this is the right decision for the community and for the cops," Shea said.

"Like any great agency, we are a proud agency. It's made up of, I think, the best this city has to offer," Shea added. "But we also have to look inward at times, and we're not perfect."

IMAGE: Dermot Shea (Kena Betancur / Getty Images file)

Shea is speaking out after more than two weeks of protests in New York City and around the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody. Since his death on May 25, protesters across the nation have condemned police violence and systemic racism, while activists have been pushing for the defunding or even the dismantling of police forces.

While some officers in New York were stabbed, struck by bricks and fire extinguishers and hit with cars during the mass demonstrations, videos showed protesters being assaulted, some being thrown to the ground or having their masks removed and being pepper-sprayed — all by police. Shea has suspended those officers without pay, and one has been charged, with several other incidents under internal affairs investigations.

"Did I see isolated incidents and take swift action because the actions were wrong? Absolutely," Shea said.

"But when you look back at that period, I hope that history will show that they acted with incredible professionalism, incredible restraint," he added of his officers.

The NYPD has a history of leading change in policing across the country, including an innovative crime tracking system known as CompStat, as well as in fighting terrorism.

Shea said that when bad incidents are captured on video, such as what happened to Floyd, who screamed out "I can't breathe" while pinned under an officer's knee, they reverberate around the country — and officers can be similarly shaken by what they see.

"When you have incidents like that and it's shown over and over again on the television, people need to know that the cops, the police officers, are going to be held accountable for actions when they do something wrong," Shea said.

"In many parts of the country, including New York City, people over time have lost faith, and it's our job to build that back up."

His decision to disband the anti-crime unit, which was a 600-person plainclothes unit that had a history of high-profile police shootings and deaths, is part of building up that trust, he said.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

But the move has been criticized by Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, the city's largest police union. He said this week that "shooting and murders are both climbing steadily upward, but our city leaders have clearly decided that proactive policing isn't a priority anymore."

Civil rights groups have also questioned whether disbanding the unit will lead to improved policing in communities of color.

"Getting rid of a unit like that doesn't quite solve the problem," said Nick Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice. It signals a "potential culture change" away from police officers as being "warriors" and more as "partners" in a community, "but the risk is that it could be symbolic."

Shea stressed that his recent decisions were not about abandoning the people who live in communities with crime, while he asked for help from the broader judicial system.

He said 1,000 people with open gun cases — many of them indicted — remain free as a result of recent bail reform laws.

"I would argue we don't need more stops," Shea said. "We need to handle that population of a thousand people that have broken the law and make tough decisions on who has to be incarcerated, who can go to diversion programs, who can receive probation."