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The King is Dead. Long Live the King
September 19, 2016
James O’Neill was sworn in Friday by Mayor Bill de Blasio in the silence of the police commissioner’s office, far from the media and the public. He becomes the city’s 43rd commissioner, and the first in a generation who is not a celebrity.
Instead, the glory of the day went to his predecessor, Bill Bratton who, since announcing his retirement in August, had been on a six-week, self-choreographed victory lap. This culminated Friday with his “walkout” from Police Plaza, a department ritual that Bratton turned into a Cecil B. DeMille-like extravaganza. It featured two bands and a helicopter flyover as Bratton and his wife, Rikki Klieman, were applauded by hundreds of white-gloved, uniformed officers, as no doubt Roman soldiers greeted Julius Caesar as he returned from his wars and one of his Praetorian guards whispered, “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” [No record exists of the soldiers’ overtime costs.]
Bratton’s predecessor, Ray Kelly, was also a celebrity. The non-profit Police Foundation paid thousands of dollars for his dues, meals and entertainment at the Harvard Club. It also paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his personal public relations man. In 2009, The New York Times devoted a full page to Kelly’s haberdashery of bespoke suits and ties. “I wear mostly Charvet,” the Times quoted Kelly as saying. “Some Brioni, an occasional Kiton but mostly Charvet; I just think they are high-quality and look the best.”
Kelly’s predecessor, Bernie Kerik, was another celebrity. In the aftermath of 9/11, he found a glamorous publishing girlfriend who made him a best-selling author. When he retired, the Police Foundation paid for hundreds of plaster-of-Paris busts of himself that he handed out to friends. The NY Post editorialized that he should remain “commissioner for life.”
[For the record, the Police Foundation also paid for Bratton’s farewell dinner Friday night at the NY Athletic Club for 150 or so guests. De Blasio did not attend and, according to one guest, his name wasn’t mentioned.]
O’Neill, who will be sworn in on Monday in a public ceremony with Bratton in the audience, is nothing if not a humble guy. Decent and smart, he started as a transit cop, rose through the ranks, then took a hit when Kelly scapegoated him out of a narcotics unit. Bratton, who knew him when he headed the Transit Police, appointed him chief of department, the NYPD’s highest uniformed positon.
The key to O’Neill’s success will be how he handles crime and public safety, including investigations like the FBI-led probe underway into the Chelsea explosion that led to 29 injuries and rocked the confidence of many New Yorkers.
Also important to O'Neill's success is how he copes with a mayor who is distrusted by the police unions and much of the department and who has sagging public approval ratings. Specifically, O’Neill must keep de Blasio out of the department’s daily business, à la his midnight telephone call six weeks after becoming mayor to a deputy chief that led to the release of a prominent political supporter who was being held for two outstanding warrants.
A former top cop said of O’Neill’s potential travails: “Everyone is going to leverage him for his favorite guy. They will come at him from all sides. It’s not just the mayor. He’s going to hear it from everyone who wants to promote his own people. He’ll get dozens of calls. You tell them thanks for the info and then put them off.”
Bratton has left him with two simmering issues. Both involve police transparency, a concept de Blasio supported until he became mayor.
The first was the discovery that officers Daniel Pantaleo and Richard Haste have racked up a ton of overtime while on modified assignment because of their actions in the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, respectively. O’Neill has said that in future the commissioner must approve such overtime.
The second issue is the sudden change in department policy in releasing disciplinary records of cops — in particular Pantaleo’s. The change occurred after the department’s resident legal genius, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Larry Byrne, concluded that releasing cops’ disciplinary records violates state law. For the past 40 years, the department has released such records. Bratton backed Byrne. De Blasio backed Bratton.
O’Neill can, of course, reverse Byrne, although this seems unlikely. Reversing Byrne would in effect be reversing the mayor. Perhaps the best he can do is order Byrne to keep his hands in his pockets and his opinions to himself.
Bratton, meanwhile, is off to the private sector at a company connected to the Clintons. At his luncheon Friday at Police Plaza, he was schmoozing with two executives from NBC, perhaps finalizing the details of a deal where he will serve as a network commentator. He says his career in law enforcement is over and that he will never return to the public sector.
Don’t bet the ranch on that.