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Meet the Next Boss of America's Largest Police Force

James "Jimmy" O'Neill is a low-key career cop known for trying to bridge the gap between police and regular people.
August 3, 2016, 2:04pm

Incoming NYPD commissioner James O'Neill appearing with Mayor Bill de Blasio Tuesday. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

When New York police commissioner Bill Bratton announced his retirement Tuesday, a bald 58-year-old Brooklyn native Mayor Bill de Blasio likes to call "Jimmy" was next in line. As chief of the department, James O'Neill has long been a low-key presence at NYPD conferences, but he'll step into a more political role next month. Bratton has groomed the guy for years, though, touting O'Neill as someone who can bridge the gap between the police force and communities of color—a divide that could be pivotal as de Blasio heads into a reelection campaign in 2017.

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"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," the mayor said Tuesday. "It's an idea. It's been talked about for decades. It's never been achieved on a sustained basis. But this is the man who will achieve it, and that is very good news for the people of New York City."

Bratton, of course, is leaving behind a safe city but a department under fire––some of the NYPD's top officers are being probed for allegedly accepting bribes in returns for police escorts, and activists irate at police killings are still a fixture of local life. This means O'Neill will require the skills of both a house cleaner and a PR strategist; he'll need to stomp out corruption and engage seriously with Black Lives Matter, a once-nebulous movement that is veering toward traditional engagement with the political system. Whether he can pull that off while continuing the city's transition toward community policing will determine the future of an agency that tends to serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Born in East Flatbush, O'Neill started off as a transit cop in 1983 and became a sergeant four years later. He rose through the ranks until 2008, when he was demoted after the Narcotics Division he ran saw four cops get arrested for allegedly having sex with informants, paying them with drugs and even hitting up dealers for cash. Although O'Neill apparently thought about leaving law enforcement, Bratton urged him to stay on and eventually made O'Neill the city's highest-ranking uniformed cop in 2014.

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Along the way, O'Neill became right-hand man to one of the most influential cops in US history, Bratton having helped put broken windows policing on the national radar. O'Neill carried himself rather differently than his boss, though, who has a reputation of a publicity hound, someone who has more in common with a politician than a beat cop. "The beauty of my job is it's apolitical," O'Neill said during a July press conference. "I love what I do. I love being a cop."

Joseph Giaclone, a former detective who worked directly with O'Neill for two years, remembers someone with no airs about him—even when he became a one-star chief. "He's a soft spoken guy who doesn't fly off the handle," he told me. "He's not a politician, he's a police officer, and morale is so bad in the NYPD right now that they need a guy like him."

Over the past few years, O'Neill has largely been tasked with formulating the city's response to a national dialogue on racially charged policing. In the search for an alternative method of fighting crime, he sent a team of officers to Los Angeles with the goal of aping that city's community policing program, according to the New York Times. That philosophy calls for officers to become fixtures in a particular area, get to know its inhabitants, and work toward addressing the social problems that cause crime—as opposed to merely reacting to it. What that looks like in practice is cops making "community stops," or chats with locals, and radioing them in.

De Blasio has suggested this model will be used in a majority of the city's police precincts this fall.

Before he could expand that approach, though, O'Neill had to manage the protests that exploded after video of Eric Garner's death went viral in 2014 and Officer Daniel Pantaleo was not charged with a crime. Earlier this week, Black Lives Matter activists again protested outside city hall, demanding Bratton be ousted. They got their wish, however inadvertently, but if de Blasio is going to win reelection, he'll need O'Neill's name to carry a shade less notoriety than his predecessor's.

"Chief O'Neill's status as the number two and hand-picked successor of Bratton makes it difficult to believe that he will not simply maintain the problematic state of affairs," said Anthonine Pierre, a spokesperson for local activist group Communities United for Police Reform. "Talk is cheap and our communities are tired. So-called community policing, training, and the rhetoric of police-community relations are no solution to the systemic problems with policing in this city and nation."

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