clock menu more-arrow no yes
Former NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill (l.) looks on as Mayor Bill de Blasio announces Dermot Shea (c.) will be new head of NYPD. Nov. 4, 2019.
Dermot Shea speaks at City Hall after Mayor Bill de Blasio announces he will be the next NYPD commissioner, succeeding James O’Neill (left), Nov. 4, 2019.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Filed under:

NYPD Commissioners Were Accused of Abuse Before Rising to Top Job

Before they became NYPD brass, the city’s top cop and his predecessor abused their authority in separate incidents, the Civilian Complaint Review Board determined, newly released records show.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea got cited for what appears to be a wrongful vehicle search in 2003, during the era of “stop and frisk,” when he was a captain in The Bronx.

Six years earlier, the CCRB substantiated allegations of unlawful search, unlawful detention and unspecified “abuse” charges against then-Lieutenant James O’Neill, who would rise to head the NYPD in 2016.

The allegations of misconduct, along with unsubstantiated accusations against both men, are among hundreds of thousands against NYPD cops dating to 1985 that were published in an online database Thursday by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The trove was released after a federal appeals court ruled the records could be made public while a lawsuit filed by the unions representing police officers, firefighters and corrections officers proceeds in court.

The database of 323,511 allegations of misconduct across 101,273 complaints filed against roughly 81,000 current and former New York City cops marks the most comprehensive view the public has on how accusations of police wrongdoing — ranging from profane language to chokeholds — are investigated and punishment doled out.

Data on cop misconduct histories released by ProPublica last month showed that about 3,900 officers currently on the 36,000-member force had logged at least one substantiated complaint.

Floyd Killing Spurred Change

The unions sought to suppress the release of misconduct records after Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to create an online database detailing complaints that had been largely hidden from public scrutiny for more than four decades due to state law known as 50-a.

The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May sparked protests in New York City and beyond, becoming a flashpoint for greater police accountability. Spurred by the demonstrations and nightly images of some police officers beating protestors, the New York State Legislature repealed 50-a.

The decision allowing the NYCLU to publish records it obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request before the unions filed suit is one step in an ongoing, multipronged legal battle.

On Friday, a judge is slated to issue a decision in the unions’ federal lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction against the city to stop the release of more detailed records.

The database released by the NYCLU Thursday shows that 7.2% of complaints were substantiated by the CCRB.

The data also indicated that about a third of complaints go unsubstantiated and that about 20% of time an officer gets exonerated. The percentages have remained largely the same over the last quarter century-plus, through the Giuliani, Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, even as the number of complaints has dropped.

The data also offers insight into the common types of complaints filed against cops, with a majority of civilians alleging the use of physical force by a police officer. Other common allegations include the threat of arrest, abuse of authority, cursing, gun-pointing and stop-and-frisk.

The records available through the database offer bare-bones recitations of allegations and findings, not detailed narratives like the complaint reports THE CITY obtained about some cops before the unions went to court.

But the database allows a glimpse into thousands of cases — and into the careers of the two most recent leaders of the NYPD.

Five Complaints Against Shea

Shea, who joined the force in 1991 and became commissioner in December, tallied five misconduct complaints filed by civilians.

All of those complaints came between 2003 and 2011, with eight allegations contained within five complaints. The first complaint filed against him regarded a vehicle stop in 2003 that CCRB found to be substantiated by the evidence.

At the time, then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was pressuring cops to stop and question citizens. The numbers of such stops had begun what would become a near decade-long climb before a federal judge ruled the tactic, as practiced, was racially biased and unconstitutional.

In 2003, the number of NYPD stops of civilians had risen to 160,000 from the prior year’s 97,000. Nearly 90% of those stopped were Black and Hispanic men who were sent on their way without charges or summons in the vast majority of cases.

During the Aug. 8, 2003, vehicle stop, Shea — recently promoted to captain — was assigned to the Bronx Borough Command. Records do not spell out specific details, but state that the complainant accused him of wrongfully pulling over the vehicle, illegally searching the vehicle and unlawfully frisking one or more of the passengers.

All three allegations were substantiated by the CCRB, the data shows.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea speaks at a City Hall press conference, May 29, 2020.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea speaks at a City Hall news conference, May 29, 2020.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The records state Shea received no disciplinary action — other than “instructions” on proper police procedure.

In a June 2, 2011 incident, Shea was accused of using unnecessary physical force, the records state. At the time, he’d risen to the rank of inspector and was commanding officer of the 44th Precinct in The Bronx. In that case, the CCRB could neither prove nor disprove the allegation, so the case was deemed unsubstantiated.

In three other abuse of authority complaints filed against Shea, including two more alleging wrongful stops and one alleging unlawful entry of premises, the CCRB exonerated him. That means they found the incident occurred, but that Shea did not violate department protocol.

The last alleged incident occurred on June 12, 2011. Soon after, he notched a series of promotions, from deputy commissioner of operations to chief of crime control strategies to chief of detectives by 2018.

In December 2019, he replaced O’Neill as commissioner. Since then, he has adamantly defended the NYPD against allegations of over-policing during the protests that erupted across the city following the death at the hands of police of Floyd and other Black citizens.

On Thursday, NYPD officials did not respond to a request for comment on Shea’s past civilian complaints.

They also did not respond to questions about the history of O’Neill, who joined the force in 1983.

Four Complaints Against O’Neill

The CCRB data reveals 10 allegations in four civilian complaints were filed against O’Neill between 1997 and 2002. That includes one complaint in which CCRB substantiated three abuse of authority charges.

That incident occurred on Sept. 5, 1997, when O’Neill was a lieutenant. The complaint charges O’Neill with unlawful search, threat of force and then excessive use of force, unlawful detention, using “nasty words” and an unspecified “abuse” allegation.

James O’Neill
Then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill speaks about officer discipline records during at One Police Plaza, Feb. 1, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The CCRB substantiated the unlawful search, unlawful detention and unspecified abuse charges, but couldn’t prove one way or the other the allegations of threat and actual force or the use of “nasty words.” Those charges were dubbed unsubstantiated.

There’s no record indicating O’Neill received any form of discipline stemming from the substantiated charges. The records also don’t spell out where the incident occurred.

The CCRB investigated three other abuse of authority allegations filed against O’Neill in 1997, 1999 and 2002, alleging illegal searches of premises — including one case in which the complainant claimed property had been damaged.

In each instance, CCRB exonerated O’Neill, finding that the incidents had occurred but that he hadn’t violated police protocol.

Emails and calls to Visa, where O’Neill is head of global security, were not returned.


Help Us Hold the NYPD Accountable

Tell us about your experience with the NYPD. Did you have an interaction with a certain officer that bothered you? Do certain cops have a reputation in your neighborhood? Have you ever filed a complaint? Have you ever been harassed and wanted to file a complaint but didn’t? Are you a police officer who’s tried to call out misconduct? We want to hear from you.

This form requires JavaScript to complete.
Powered by CityBase.
Rikers Island

After NYC Jail Officials Ignored Suicide Prevention Plan, Five Detainees Took Their Own Lives

Schools

NYC School Safety Agent Shortage Looms as Vaccination Mandate Deadline Nears

Schools

NYC Schools Brace for Up to 10,000 Missing Teachers as Vaccine Mandate Takes Effect

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning