Dressed in a tan summer suit, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Operations Dermot Shea takes his front-row center seat on May 14, 2015, to start the inquisition of Precincts 28, 44 and 75 in the Jack Maple CompStat Command Center, along with his partner-in-interrogation Chief of Department Jimmy O’Neill.
A team from the 28 in Harlem lines up across the long room at a podium under the gold printed quote from the late Jack Maple, the inventor of CompStat (short for Computer Statistics): “We will be relentless until New York is in fact the safest city in America.”
The room is lined with a dozen large-screen monitors mounted high on the walls. Every other screen displays the less-than-subtle “Cops matter,” and the others flash tweets from the various precincts. At this special gun-violence edition of CompStat, in response to a recent spate of shootings in the city, a tweet from the 68 brags about getting “murderous machinery” off the streets, and several precincts use the hashtag #onelessgun.
“I’d like to commend everyone for representing at Officer (Brian) Moore’s funeral. You showed the nation and the world what our cops mean to us. … I know sometimes you feel not appreciated,” Shea begins. The the screens flip over to crime stats and maps showing a shooting spike in Harlem’s 28th precinct, and the first of many mugshots of black male faces. “We need to get back to basics,” he says. “It’s the same damn people causing mayhem in New York City,” he says, echoing a conversation we’d had the day before, but with anger this time.
Harlem is showing five month-to-date shootings. Shea asks the team from the 28 about the first suspect on the screen: “Are we going to get a prosecution?” Lt. Marco Gonzalez answers: “He’s in; the next court date is June 18.” Shea responds abruptly that he doesn’t want to worry about that conviction. He then asks about the connection to another gang. “I have to get back to you on that,” Gonzalez says.
“That’s not good enough,” Shea answers. “… By the end of the day I want to know who is tasked with following up … especially on the guns. We need a system in place and followed up, not missed opportunities. (Name deleted) is going to kill someone; I don’t want it to be us.”
The next Harlem murder happened in front of a school. Deputy Inspector Olufunmilo “Lola” Obe explains that they believe it might be connected to another murder back in March and may be a dispute between youth groups. O’Neill asks brusquely: “What’s going on in that block? What’s this dispute about, and what are we doing about it?”
“We don’t have a good handle on it, Chief,” Obe answers. I look up and see a new map flashing on the monitors, showing month-to-date 311 calls in red within two blocks of the recent incident.
After more back and forth, O’Neill interjects. “You’ve done a great job … but there’s no coordination. … The last couple of years, the 28 has been great. … You’re not going the right direction; I don’t want to see you take another five shootings in a week.”
Soon Shea raises his voice a couple of levels. “We are not giving back our streets. … We paid for (the inattention) with blood less than a week ago. … We do not permit gambling, dice, smoking marijuana.”
Chief O’Neill adds that the 28 has to return to “targeted, focused enforcement”—”You took a step back; you could have seen it coming.”
The men, especially Shea, continue the theme of targeted enforcement—not numbers—throughout the rest of the meeting, moving to the 44 and then the 75. He lambastes the squads for low-quality arrests, such as doing “collars on the highway for panhandling rather than gang collars.”
“Things are off the tracks; who is calling it back?” he booms. “… Everybody up on the podium needs more people. But we’re talking about shootings near a school. … Kids are probably hiding under their desks. … I need gang units working on gang-member investigations.”
As the meeting draws to a close, O’Neill calls for a renewed focus on applying “Broken Windows” policing to targeted criminals. “On quality-of-life, we can’t let up. … See what happens when we do? … Thank you to everyone in this room for who you are. Be proud of what you do and stay safe.”
I follow Shea back to his office on the 11th. There, he grabs us both bottles of water, sits across his table from me and again becomes the nice cop. He smiles a touch sheepishly, telling me that he knows two of the three commanders he’d just drilled. “Lola Obe, she’s a lieutenant who worked for me, the nicest person you’ll ever meet. Brian Mullen, the 44 commander, the second one, I know very well. Mike Lipetri, very sharp, is the last guy. I didn’t know him.”
Having sat in their seat when he ran two commands, Shea says, he knows how hard it is to rise above the need to respond to the chaos around you and be proactive and strategic. “You’re in the fight, you can’t see the fight. So you just try to plug the dam, stop the bleeding, whatever phrase you want to use,” he says.
“It’s not that everyone is doing robberies in precinct X, everyone is shooting guns, and we just have to hold it down,” he continues. “It’s really the same person going command to command to command. And, granted, there’s a lot of those same persons. There could be thousands of them, and it is, but it’s not millions. There are not 3 million bad people; it’s probably less than 5,000 people that really drive the crime.”
“Although it seems that there’s so much shooting going on, you heard it with the 44. That one gang is responsible for the majority of their violence. … It’s 20 to 30 people out of, you know, a couple of hundred thousand people that live in that command. How do you drill down to that level? … You’re getting a lot of overtime, you’re getting gang (units), but what are they doing? They’re breaking up dice games, which I’m not against, but they’re not focused on the people that they need to be focusing on.”
Shea then reaches for arrests reports he’d shown me the day before with the agreement that I would not share specific details or names. “We talked yesterday about these groups: a couple people responsible for five, and then seven, shootings. That we know of. (This gang) is the same thing. It’s hard, and I’m being taped here, and I’m going to be extra cautious. I have nothing but respect for the men and women of the police department. I think they do a tremendous job, but at times, not in law enforcement, in life, sometimes people will take the path of least resistance … . I didn’t see that men and women of those precincts today were being directed and led to what had to be done. That was kind of the tone of the meeting,” he says.
He is adamant that even low-level summonses should go continue to go to violent suspects and their associates, even though the department has vastly reduced the summonses it is issuing over all. “I feel very comfortable in saying that when we have shots being fired on a corner, and we have a known person that has sold drugs on that corner … that condition has to be addressed. It’s not always that they have to be arrested or summonsed, but we can’t drive by and do nothing. … And the people that are thanking us are doing it, generally, behind closed doors.”
Take the Strategic Enforcement Team in the 28, a group tasked to investigate gang activity. “That SET team—we love our acronyms—was created to not make arrests, but to take care of gang conditions, so if you can get (gang members) to get out of the gang life into school, God bless you and perfect.” But SET officers can’t be doing 100 different things, he says, and still be effective. “… When we looked at what that team had done for the last month, they were not focused at all. They were all over the place.” Instead, he said, they created SET to focus on violent criminals, or the ones the data think will be.
Shea makes it clear that it is “harder to fight crime now” that it has dropped so dramatically in the city. There’s simply less of it to go after, and what’s there is largely packed into Impact Zones around the city where the department is determined to keep up stronger enforcement of targeted quality-of-life violations—including against the 300 worst criminals they’re watching closely—to get the guns that still pour in from straw purchases and robberies in the Deep South where legal guns are everywhere. (The gun that killed Officer Moore came from a gun store in Georgia.)
That may mean that people in those zones are still frustrated by the police presence and tactics, but that is the price that Commissioner William Bratton’s NYPD believes is the cost of keeping crime and disorder under control.
Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College, keeps a close eye on the NYPD and its strategies. Long a skeptic of “Broken Windows”/quality-of-life policing, Vitale is pleased that William Bratton’s NYPD is decreasing the massive arrests and summonses of the stop-and-frisk era (2002-2013), but still questions trying to use low-level enforcement encounters to round up gang members and as a way to lower the city’s gun violence. “In a way, that’s not really ‘Broken Windows’ policing, he says in a phone interview. “It’s problem-oriented policing.”
Vitale says that the hyper-focused enforcement that Shea tells me about is really what is now called “targeted deterrence.”
“The idea is that, instead of stopping and frisking every young black man in the neighborhood, they are identifying who (they believe) is actually involved in criminal, violent behavior,” Vitale says. They can then focus on them, in the way Shea insists on at CompStat, providing enhanced surveillance and using quality-of-life encounters if needed to get their attention. “They actually say to these young people, ‘come in and talk to us,'” Vitale says. They show them printouts from their Facebook pages (as Shea shows me) sending the message: “Hey, we’re all over you. … You gotta cut it out.”
Vitale is critical of the strategy, often called “Operation Ceasefire” and based on the ideas of criminologist David Kennedy at John Jay College in New York, because it still does not really help the young people targeted, to his thinking. “It is still a primarily punitive approach to community problems. While they say there’s a carrot and a stick, there’s really no carrot. The carrot is not real,” says the author of “City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. (New York: New York University Press, 2008). “All they’re doing is creating a pathway for incarceration for these people.”
The sociologist argues that “a police-centered approach” to deeply entrenched social concerns that result in gang activity and related violence is “fundamentally unjust” and actually leads to the over-policing that the nation is currently debating.
But when you’re the man in charge of police operations, and there’s a surge in gun crimes (and resulting public outrage), the targeting can feel like the best option available in the short term to get guns off the street, even if it takes an encounter over an open container to make it happen. In his office after the CompStat meeting, Shea tells me about showing cops a picture of the kid who did a robbery that they arrested with a gun. “‘You caught one of them; there were about 10 of them. Who are the other nine?’ And when I got that blank look, I said, ‘Do your job and identify them. Then you will see the connections.’ This is the exercise of what we do on a week-to-week basis,” he says.