The New York Police Department has long been known as a bastion of Irish-America. On Monday that tradition continued when Dermot Shea was named the new commissioner of the New York Police Department, replacing James O'Neill, who announced he was stepping down after three years in the post.
Shea (50), whose parents both emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s and met in New York, joined the NYPD in 1991. He has held a series of senior roles, including head of crime control strategies.
In 2018 Shea was appointed chief of detectives, a role which gave him overall responsibility for all investigation operations in the city.
As commissioner, he will oversee a force of about 36,000 officers.
Announcing his appointment at a press conference on Monday, New York mayor Bill de Blasio said that Shea was “uniquely qualified to serve as our next police commissioner and drive down crime rates even further”.
He also highlighted Shea’s immigrant roots. “This is an American dream story if ever there was one,” he said. “Dermot was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
Shea grew up in Queens, one of five children. For a time, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment, later moving to a bigger apartment in Sunnyside. His father worked as a union handyman and his mother was a stay-at-home parent.
Shea joined the force on the same day as his brother Jim, and cousin Chris. His uncle was also a member of the force, while another brother, Paul, is in the US army.
Shea will become the fourth consecutive Irish-American to lead the NYPD. O'Neill, who stepped down on Monday, is a Brooklyn native whose four grandparents came from Ireland.
Shea, a father of three, assumes the role at a time when crime is at historic lows in New York City. The murder rate is at its lowest since the 1950s.
But there are other challenges. Morale within the force is low – 11 current or former New York police officers have died by suicide this year.
Shea's predecessor faced criticism from police unions that he was not sufficiently on the side of officers. This year he fired Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who held African-American citizen Eric Garner in a stranglehold just before his death in 2014.
Though Pantaleo was not indicted, the union opposed disciplinary action against him, warning that the force could not do its job effectively.
Others have questioned why another white career police officer is taking the helm of an organisation that is increasingly diverse. More than 60 per cent of the graduating NYPD class this year came from a minority group, while 27 per cent are women.
'Somewhere upstairs I can assure you there is a hell of a celebration going on in heaven . . . there is probably some Irish whiskey being spilled'
De Blasio faced questions about the lack of diversity in senior positions at Monday’s press conference, insisting that “in the next few years, you’re going to see a lot of leadership elevated that represent the full diversity of New York City”.
But given the ongoing tensions between law enforcement personnel and the non-white community in the United States, the optics of appointing a white male to the position has disappointed some.
On Monday, Shea described a photograph that hangs on his wall of himself, his brother and cousin when he graduated on a sunny day in 1991. His father and uncle, now deceased, are also in the picture.
“Somewhere upstairs I can assure you there is a hell of a celebration going on in heaven . . . there is probably some Irish whiskey being spilled,” he said, as he paid tribute to his family and his upbringing in Queens.
“We were rich in so many ways but it had nothing to do with money . . . those years really formed the basis of who I am.”