A little more than a decade ago, Dermot Shea was a rising star in the New York Police Department, taking over the top job at the 50th Precinct.
Monday, he stood next to Mayor Bill de Blasio, his choice for a much different top job: That as the NYPD’s 44th police commissioner.
Shea is set to take over from current commissioner James O’Neill in December after serving as the department’s chief of detectives. And he’ll inherit a department the mayor says has made great strides in improving relations between the police force and the people they serve while reducing crime to its lowest level since the 1950s.
“What I needed to ensure was that there would be a successor who could continue this progress,” de Blasio said during a Monday afternoon news conference. “When Jimmy took over from no less than Bill Bratton, he knew his job was to aim even higher, and now our job is to aim higher again. The person for that mission, the right man for that mission, is our chief of detectives, Dermot Shea.”
Shea joined the police department in April 1991 at the same time as his brother Jim Shea and his cousin Chris Shea. He grew up in a small apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, and once he put on his police uniform, would cut his teeth as a beat cop in the South Bronx, working his way up to becoming the commander of the 50th Precinct in 2006.
Even then, there were some who saw big things in Shea’s future, especially after he was promoted from captain to deputy inspector a year after taking the job off Broadway and Kingsbridge Avenue.
“I’m here until I’m told otherwise,” Shea told The Riverdale Press at the time. “I’m very happy here.”
Shea was indeed told otherwise a few months later when he was moved to a much busier 44th Precinct covering Highbridge and Mount Eden. Not long after, Shea moved downtown, first as deputy commissioner of operations, and then as chief of crime control strategies where, according to the department, he took deep looks at crime statistics and how to use such data to bring crime rates down in the city.
Shea was named chief of detectives in April 2018, succeeding Robert Boyce, who had retired after 36 years.
But it’s what Shea has done downtown that has worried at least one group. The Legal Aid Society, which provides legal representation to those who may not be able to afford it otherwise, fears Shea may unfairly target specific communities that may not always be able to defend themselves.
“Under Chief Dermot Shea’s watch, the NYPD has expanded its rogue gang database to ensnare thousands of black and Latinx men and women,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of criminal defense practice at Legal Aid, in a statement. The NYPD “codified practices to surreptitiously collect DNA at all costs, even from those who have never been convicted of or charged with a crime.
“This will be more of the same, and our clients — New Yorkers from communities of color — will continue to suffer more of the same from a police department that prioritizes arrests and summonses above all else.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the founder of National Action Network civil rights group, said in a statement he wasn’t rushing to judgment, at least not until after his organization had a chance to talk to Shea.
“We’re hoping that he is open to having an open dialogue with us and working together to help put an end to unlawful policing practices while increasing accountability as it pertains to NYC’s black and brown communities,” Sharpton said of Shea.
O’Neill was appointed by de Blasio in September 2016, overseeing what would become dramatic decreases in crime in the city — statistics that had been in decline for some years. He also took a national beating over Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who authorities said was responsible for the death of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk during an arrest in 2014. O’Neill waited until he received a recommendation from an administrative judge last August before firing Pantaleo, after outcry that even seeped into the early Democratic presidential debates.
On Monday, Shea said he was humbled to become the new police commissioner, especially after growing up in a small apartment with four other siblings, and parents who had emigrated from Ireland looking for a better life in the United States.
“I will tell you that we were rich in so many ways, but it had nothing to do with money growing up,” Shea said. “Those years really formed, I believe, the basis of who I am. Life lessons on how to treat people, and how to treat people with dignity, respect. Treat people the same.”
“Literally every value that I possess, I could trace back to my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters — all five, including me.”
Although crime levels and incarceration rates are at all-time modern lows, Shea admits he has his work cut out for him as New York City’s new top cop.
“The blueprint is here, and it’s time to build on that,” he said. “There is so much more work to do for all of us, and we cannot and will not rest until all New Yorkers feel safe.”