From a New York Irish neighbourhood to chief of the NYPD

Dermot Shea is the latest in a long line of Irish-Americans to lead the NYPD

Nestled in the heart of lower Manhattan near City Hall, is the headquarters of the New York Police Department. The 13-floor building is the nerve centre of the US's largest police force, which employs 36,000 officers and thousands more civilian workers across the city.

Stepping into the bustling foyer, the full spectrum of New York life is on display as civilians and officers come and go. But the lobby is also a space for reflection. Etched into the wall are the names of the police officers who have died on duty since 1849 – among them dozens of Irish names such as Walsh, Farrell, Fitzpatrick – a reminder of the role Irish-Americans have played in the force since its inception.

Upstairs on the top floor, police commissioner Dermot Shea is finishing up a meeting with community groups as he welcomes me into his office. He immediately smiles when he hears my accent. I notice his green tie. Did he wear it especially?

“To be honest, no, it’s a coincidence,” he laughs as he takes a seat, though I can’t help spotting a shamrock ornament on the shelf along with his New York Mets mementoes.

It’s been a busy few months for Shea. The Queens native was appointed as head of the NYPD in November – the latest in a long line of Irish-Americans to occupy the top job. He replaced James O’Neill, whose grandparents came from Ireland, and held the post from 2016 to 2019. He in turn was preceded by Irish-American William Bratton, while Raymond Kelly was at the helm of the police force between 2002 and 2013 – his second stint in the post.

Shea's story is like that of many first-generation immigrants to the United States. He was raised in the Sunnyside area of Queens, a suburb dominated by Irish emigrants.

Was he aware of his Irish heritage growing up? “With a name like Dermot Shea, it was hard not to,” he says with a smile. “It was an Irish neighbourhood where everyone knew each other and everyone knew each other’s parents, and where they were from. You had the O’Sullivans, the Malone’s – it was very tight-knit.”

His parents both emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s – his father from Crettyard in Co Laois, his mother from Tubbercurry on the Mayo-Sligo border. They met in Irish circles in New York, married and settled in Queens where they raised a family of five.

His father, who had worked in coalmines in Ireland, had intended to follow the route of many of his relations and join the police force. But hearing problems meant that was not an option, and he instead worked as a handyman and bartender. Shea’s mother raised the children.

“I realise now how much they really worked and sacrificed,” says Shea. “Money was tight but you really didn’t want for anything. It was a different time – you didn’t need a lot.”

Like many of his neighbours he was immersed in Irish culture and heritage, though he jokes that he escaped most of it. “I was the fourth of five kids, so I think my older brothers and sisters got it out of my parents’ system,” he smiles. “My two older sisters were both involved in Irish dancing, and competed in the feises. They also tried the kids on the tin whistle, the pipes, and the accordion was a staple at the house. I think I lasted one lesson. I appreciated music greatly but it definitely wasn’t a strength.”

Instead, his real interest was in sport, at which he excelled. While his father brought him to Gaelic Park in the Bronx to watch Gaelic football and hurling, he didn't pick it up. "I suppose I was starting to become Americanised. Hockey, baseball, softball, etc."

Catholicism was a big part of his Irish-American upbringing. Shea was an altar boy, and attended Xavier High School in Manhattan, a well known Jesuit school.

In 1991, he followed a well-worn path for Irish-Americans and joined the NYPD.

“It was April 30th, 1991, and on that day the three of us joined. Myself, my older brother Jim, and my first cousin Chris.”

So began a 29-year career that has led him to the top of the service.

His early years were spent on the beat in the Bronx, followed by postings in Manhattan and Queens, where he worked in a range of areas including narcotics and investigations.

In 2014 he was appointed as the point person for CompStat, a management tool initiated by the NYPD, using computer analytics to more precisely identify crime patterns.

But Shea’s appointment as the chief commissioner has not been without controversy. Some have argued that it was a missed opportunity to appoint the first non-white commissioner to the post. In a highly ethnically diverse city such as New York, many believe that the top police chief should better reflect the demographics of the city. Given the tensions between the black community and law enforcement in recent years, there have been calls for a black police chief to be appointed.

Shea is aware of the criticism. “Look, what if I told you that the majority of the NYPD is minority . . . We are a majority minority department. More than 50 per cent is in fact minority. That’s a very good thing. Some days here I’ll go from a meeting with the Jewish caucus, to the black and Latino caucus to the Muslim society. It’s Black History month. Everyone brings something to the table. The rich cultures and traditions, it’s what makes New York city strong.”

He is also well aware of the changing patterns of immigration and the inevitable declining presence of Irish-Americans in the police force. He points out that when the population of New York was 28 per cent Irish, this was reflected in the force. Today, the force is 28 per cent Hispanic, reflecting the profile of the city.

“There’s been a long and rich tradition of Irish on the NYPD that remains till this day, but I think you could say the same about many ethnicities. Whether it’s recently Dominican Americans, or years ago people of Jewish faith, or Puerto Ricans or African Americans . The great thing about the NYPD is we all melt together and individually we’re proud of our identities and heritage, but we’re also proud of our blue [uniforms].”

Shea is also sensitive to what he calls the “external factors” that have hung over the work of the NYPD force: controversy over the “stop and frisk” policy that was found to have disproportionately targeted young African-American men; tensions between police unions and the force over its handling of deaths of police on the job; and accusations of racially-charged police brutality.

We have to build relationships and trust with people, so people don't view police as an army coming into their neighbourhood but more of an ally

Shea immediately points to the work of CompStat which he argues introduced a more targeted approach to crime reduction, reducing arrest rates and mass incarceration through the use of statistics and algorithms. Although there has been criticism that the system resulted in racial profiling, he insists it has adapted to reflect these concerns.

“There were some rocky roads, but we learned from our past practices with CompStat. We showed the country we can police a different way. We could cut arrests and stops. We could have a softer touch while using data and precision, by being smarter about investigations, and focusing on a small number of people who do the most crime, and building strong prosecutable cases. We don’t need a wide net; we need precision. We did that and it’s very effective.”

"If you look at the past five or six years, we have the lowest jail populations we've ever had in New York City. Shootings, murders, stolen vehicles, serious robberies, burglaries – all of these are hitting historic lows at the same time as we have the lowest arrests, stops and summonses."

However, critics of CompStat have disputed whether NYPD practices are the sole reason for the reduction in New York crime rates. There were approximately 2,220 murders in New York in 1991, when Shea joined the force, compared to roughly 300 now.

Shea also credits the work of the prosecution services, and the role played by communities in reducing crime and levels of incarceration, recalling his own experience on the beat in communities in the Bronx and other boroughs.

“We have to build relationships and trust with people, so people don’t view police as an army coming into their neighbourhood but more of an ally, and a partner. These two things are working side by side; hopefully people don’t even realise it. We have more cops and police officers than ever working on neighbourhood policing, on community events, and working with kids. Keeping kids out of trouble is the next frontier.”

As for his own family plans, he hopes to visit Ireland soon with his wife. He visited once for a summer holiday as a child, and more recently for a policing conference.

He knows where he will be on March 17th, however: on Fifth Avenue marching in the St Patrick’s Day parade. Though he participated last year, he said he took several years off because “much as I loved it, my memories of the St Patrick’s Day parade was going every year as a young boy, sitting on Fifth Avenue on the sidewalk on the cold concrete, under blankets. You had to get there early to get a good spot!”.

“I would have many relatives who would be marching, not in the police force necessarily, but with their county groups. It was always a great day.”

As he takes on the challenge of running one of the world’s largest police forces, staying connected to this Irish-American identity is evidently something that Shea will continue to foster, as he embarks on his most challenging chapter to date.

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