Police Commissioner Dermot Shea’s Remarks at the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce Event The City College of New York, Manhattan

February 23, 2021

Good afternoon, everyone.

For hosting us here today, I want to extend some big thank-yous to Lloyd Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce; Vincent Boudreau, president of The City College of New York; the ev. Clifton Daniels, III, dean of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine; and Voza Rivers, chairman of the Harlem Arts Alliance.

Thanks, also, to Geoffrey Eaton, first vice president of the New York State NAACP, for the honor of joining us here today. And, of course, thanks to WNBC’s David Ushery for serving as our master of ceremonies.

In preparing for today’s event, I thought a great deal about the importance of this community and its influence on the NYPD. Amid Black History Month, I considered recounting some of the rich stories of our heroes – of Samuel Battle, the first Black police officer who joined the NYPD in 1911, who would reach the rank of lieutenant before his retirement in 1941, and who lived out his days on Strivers’ Row.

I could tell the story of Al Howard, whom you might know best as the owner of Showmans, the famous jazz club on 125th Street. Al was also a Black police officer, whose quick-thinking and decisive actions in 1958 saved the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was stabbed during a book-signing in Harlem.

When Dr. King recovered, he wrote a letter to the NYPD that states, in part:
“I have long been aware of the meaning of the phrase ‘New York’s Finest’ when applied to members of the New York Police Department .... From the moment of my unfortunate accident, I have concurred, wholeheartedly, in that appellation. There are none finer.”

I could also talk about Wilhelmina Holliday, the first African-American woman to serve as a deputy commissioner for the NYPD, who touched so many lives — including Voza Rivers, who worked for her when he was a detective at the NYPD ... and Geoffrey Eaton, who worked with her when she served as the President of the Mid-Manhattan NAACP ... and so many others.

As Voza says, Wilhelmina Holliday is truly “a daughter of the NYPD, and a daughter of Harlem.”

Those are the stories I want to tell. But they’re also the stories you already know. We might all be better-served today by heartfelt reflections on the past year.

The killing of George Floyd didn’t happen in New York City, but it was certainly felt in New York City. And conversations about a racial reckoning are happening everywhere. While some of it has been painful, I know that in the long run – for policing and for our city and our country – it’s a very, very good thing.

I believe we have an opportunity in this moment to move forward together on a path toward building mutual trust, and redoubling our efforts to create a shared vision for public safety in our communities. As I said, it’s all about trust. And how do we, as a police department, earn that from all the people we serve?

First, there must be a hard, honest moment of truth. We must acknowledge the uncomfortable, inconvenient, but undeniable truth that more than 400 years ago, a caste system based on a narrative of racial difference was used to justify almost 250 years of slavery, followed by more than 150 years of systemic racism.

These many years of racist policies and practices have caused – and continue to cause – immeasurable harm, trauma, discrimination, and injustice for so many in the United States. It exists in all aspects of society, including in policing. Police have always been an inexorable part of that story. Whether it was arresting runaway slaves or enforcing unjust Jim Crow laws, this has been a stain on law enforcement’s history in America. We have to acknowledge this truth – and I do. And we must acknowledge the NYPD’s historical role in the mistreatment of communities of color. I am sorry.

I’m not in a position to apologize on behalf of all law enforcement, everywhere – that’s beyond my standing. But I can certainly speak for the members of the New York City Police Department, both past and present, by publicly recognizing that we have inherited the burden of our collective history.

Our challenge today is to ensure that we will not participate in, or tolerate, any further inequality or injustice.

Across our nation, the history of racism did not start with the police. America has fostered generations of injustice. Communities of color have been – and remain – underserved when it comes to quality education, housing, health care, social services and job opportunities. That contributes to unending poverty, hopelessness, and crime – which leads to disproportionate criminal justice impact.

All of us – police departments and all sectors of society – must look in the mirror and seize this moment in history if we are to truly achieve our country’s guiding, yet unrealized, vision of equality and justice for all.

As a first step on our way forward, I pledge, on behalf of the NYPD, that we will do everything in our power to ensure just, transparent, accountable policing – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or immigration or socio-economic status.

Make no mistake: We all want the same things. We want them for each other and we want them for our children: A New York City that is safe. A New York City that is fair.

That begins with a police department that looks like the city it serves. In my experience, there’s no substitute for police officers who come from the communities in which they work. And the fact is, we’re now a majority-minority police department, with more Black, Hispanic, and Asian officers than White.

Like any institution, the NYPD is imperfect. But it is absolutely the greatest police department in the world – comprised of dedicated, caring professionals whose primary mission is to keep people safe. And I say that knowing that even in the NYPD, we have Black officers who are afraid that on their drive home after they finish their shifts, they’ll be pulled over simply because of what they look like. I, personally, will never know what that feels like – but I do understand that it is real, even today.

I also know that given recent events, recent tensions, and even peer-pressure at school, now might not be a time when young men and women of color can see policing as an ideal career. That may be because they just don’t like what they’ve seen or heard. It may be because they fear that they won’t be respected or admired by their friends or family when they announce their goal of becoming a police officer.

To those young men and women of color, I paraphrase Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the NYPD. By becoming part of it, you become part of the change. So, I ask you to tell your children, your brothers and sisters and their friends: Become part of the solution we all strive for.

If you look at my command staff, some of whom are with us here today, you can see two things: Our commitment to talent and professionalism by picking the best people for the job; and this is a police department that’s constantly evolving. They are lanterns lighting the path for the future of the NYPD. And so are the three brave officers who responded to the attack on the steps of the cathedral just before Christmas. And so are the three dedicated community officers honored here today. And so are so many more members of this – your police department.

Each of us up here today has been to too many crime scenes, standing over the bodies of people far too young to die. That, too, is a crisis, and one we can only solve together. I’ve also sat with these men and women inside hospital emergency rooms far too many times in the past few months, waiting for word on the condition of wounded officers. Some are cases where the cops saved a life by putting themselves between an armed assailant and the intended victim. And tragically, so many times in the course of our careers, we have had to stand together at funerals mourning the loss and paying tribute to one of our brother-or-sister officers killed in the line of duty while serving and protecting the people of this great city.

In my mind and my heart, I know that the overwhelming majority of cops are good, fair, and courageous. The overwhelming majority of police officers get through their entire careers without firing their weapons. The overwhelming majority work their entire careers without a single civilian complaint. And more and more of our newest officers – as I’ve said – come from the city, live in the city, and look like the city.

I know that the NYPD will continue to develop better ways to police. New reforms that encourage better community relations while ensuring community safety will write our own moment in history – a time when we turned the corner, found each other, and began to achieve these goals anew.

The NYPD, I commit to you, is doing our part to fix this. But it’s not an overnight fix – this is a long-term, roll-up-your-sleeves, stop-talking-and-do-things fix. And we must do it together. That’s how we need to approach this. Our North Star is to work with the community to create a shared vision of public safety. The cornerstone of that philosophy is Neighborhood Policing. The NYPD already works very hard to build trust and strengthen relationships with all the people we serve, especially young people. And I know that together with our partners across the five boroughs, I’m confident we can build on the progress we’ve made.

The future of New York City depends, above all, on our unwavering commitment to safety, fairness, and justice. Today, your police department pledges to continue that fight with you.

And together we can seize this moment – reminded of the words in Dr. King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here”:

“Perhaps WE are the ones we have been waiting for — to transform this reluctant nation into its best possible self.” Thank you again for hosting us today, and for honoring our members. Most importantly, thank you for your continued support of the NYPD and our mission. May our vital partnership only strengthen in the coming years.