Years ago I wrote an article for LAW and ORDER1 titled “The Rubber Gun Squad.” I was reminded of that piece a short time ago when I watched an interview with New York Mayor DeBlasio and NYPD Commissioner O’Neill. The interview was saddening and infuriating.
It was saddening because Rubber Gun Squad was written in response to the same tragedies being discussed in this interview. In December 1993, police departments were dealing with a significant increase in police officer suicides. On the morning of October 23, 2019, the same television network airing the suicide story in 1993, interviewed the mayor and commissioner because police officers, including NYPD officers, were committing suicide at an alarming rate, just as they were twenty-six years ago.
It was infuriating for a couple of reasons. First, the purpose of the interview that morning was to allow DeBalsio and O’Neill to announce a new program for police officers in emotional distress. Those officers now had a way to seek help anonymously. Other large departments implemented similar programs years ago, but not New York. Before this new program was developed, New York officers needing emotional or psychological support faced the same threat officers faced in 1993, a rubber gun squad or termination.
I hope you can understand my disappointment. Almost three decades after this problem was officially acknowledged and articles, of which mine was only one, suggested ways to deal with the problem of emotional issues, burnout, suicide, and self-medication, one of the largest police departments in the world was just now attempting to address the issue, after ten (10) officers killed themselves in the last year.
The second aspect of this situation I found infuriating was a comment made by the commissioner. When asked if he felt the city dropped the ball on this problem by not addressing it earlier, he and the mayor became a tad bit defensive. In defending the city and himself, the commissioner said he understood the problems officers faced, listing some of the tragedies and challenges they encountered regularly. Then he showed his true colors.
He looked at the interviewer and said, “I was a cop for a long time.” He then rambled on for a few minutes, but “I was a cop for a long time” was all I needed to hear to understand the situation. The commissioner no longer considered himself a “cop.” He wasn’t the top cop. He wasn’t the head cop. He wasn’t a cop. He was the commissioner, and there lies part of the problem.
Admittedly if one is the police commissioner or chief of police for a mayor who seems to feel police officers are at best a necessary evil, one must tread lightly. Yes, Tom Selleck’s Frank Reagan on Blue Bloods stands up to the mayor all the time, supporting the men and women of the CBS version of NYPD. In real life, that is often difficult as any police chief, director, or commissioner will likely admit, off the record at least.
Failing to stand up for one’s officers is one thing. That can be a political decision, and someone might feel bowing down to a bullying mayor or city manager may seem appropriate. Yes, having the courage to risk being canned by bucking the mayor might make someone feel good, and earn a bit of cred with the beat cops. In other cases, it might sentence the officers looking to you for leadership to more disrespect and poor management. It is hard to know if Commissioner O’Neill pulled a Frank Reagan or licked DeBlasio’s boots, but I fear the latter.
Some may read that last sentence and consider it a bit hyperbolic. That’s fine. It is a free country, at least for the moment. Still, O’Neill’s comment that he “was” a cop seems to show he no longer considers himself a cop. If that is true, it is a terrible mistake on his part and a sad situation for his department. The top cop, whatever the title, needs to see things through eyes that are aware of his or her status. With that said, if one loses sight of the fact he or she is still a cop, there may be hell to pay at many levels.
Yes, the top cop’s job is different. Chiefs or commissioners at larger departments do not routinely work night watch or make public intoxication arrests. They do not worry about the sergeant or lieutenant jumping their backside about paperwork errors or a lost set of keys. Still, they are cops first, and administrators second. When they forget that everyone suffers.
LAW and ORDER was a monthly publication targeting police management founded in 1953. It apparently ceased operations in 2014.