After a year of protest and pandemic, WNYC’s Senior Editor for Race & Justice Jami Floyd traveled to One Police Place to sit down with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. In a wide-ranging interview, she asked the commissioner about the murder of George Floyd, calls to defund the police, the intractability of structural racism, the power of the police unions, and leading the department through a pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity:
Floyd: The last time we spoke was at the beginning of the pandemic and we were talking about policing in the pandemic enforcing public safety. You’d even lost members of the department. That was just before George Floyd’s murder. It was April 30th, 2020. Can you cast your mind back?
Shea: Yeah, well, It’s hard for me personally to really separate, if I’m being honest, everything that’s transpired pre-George Floyd. What we were dealing with: Our response internally in the police department to COVID, and how many people stepped up at such a difficult time in testing and giving shots to members of the public and the police department; and, giving—trying to give—sound medical advice; dealing with 20% of the workforce out sick at one point, you know, just tremendous loss […] whether it’s an auxiliary member of the department or a civilian cleaner, or a detective. We’ve lost a lot of detectives, one just last week.
Floyd: So you did lose members of the department to COVID?
Shea: Fifty-seven in total. There’s preparation, but nobody really could have foreseen what we went through to this degree.
But I think as a city, we got through it and I think the most beautiful thing is how New Yorkers have come together. There’s many instances of that.
Floyd: But there are also lots of examples of division. A month after you and I sat down in April [of 2020], George Floyd was murdered — a jury has said. First, I want to ask you about the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that we all watched on tape.
Floyd: And of course you watched them too. Did you watch as a police officer? A commissioner? A human being? I know it’s been a year, but try and remember, and tell us what you thought.
Shea: Yeah, I watched as all of those things. I don’t think you can separate out. You know, while you wear the uniform and you’re a police commissioner, but, above all else, you’re a person. And what I thought then, and what I remember vividly now is — just sickened. And how somebody could be that callous and disregard for human life. And you say that the jury came back and said it was murder, but I think most people said it was murder from the start.
I think, what it set off, I think we’re still in the middle of it, to be honest. My hope is that when it’s all said and done something good comes out of that terrible, terrible loss of life.
Floyd: Such as?
Shea: Change. And much broader than law enforcement. I think it opened up a wound of one of the difficult things to talk about in this country—race. But I think if we want to move forward as a country, you have to have those hard conversations.
I think, certainly, law enforcement, I think, when you talk about prison and incarceration, but my hope is it goes much beyond that—to healthcare, to schools, to jobs, really to opportunities, how we see each other. Because I think while law enforcement is the focus, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think it really opened up something much larger.
Floyd: You do understand why law enforcement is the focus?
Shea: Absolutely. I think there’s a long history and I think we own that history. George Floyd was not the first name and, tragically, he is not the last and won’t be the last. It’s what we do, from here, I think that’s important.
When you look at the number of people that came out and, seeing the, literally hundreds of thousands, I guess you would say maybe millions of people marching, you know, shame on everyone. If they didn’t stop, pause and really take notice.
Floyd: So, then, what is the policing landscape? After tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people marched to defund the NYPD, or abolish the NYPD? Do you dig in? Or do you lean in as police commissioner?
Shea: I think it opened up a lot of discussions. Certainly reform. Certainly, to me, making a statement that that’s unacceptable and there has to be change. And really opening up a deep, deep discussion about law enforcement, across the country, and the treatment of people of color.
I think out of that eventually came discussions about defunding, reimagining, right?
While I don’t agree with all of that, what I think is very healthy is the real discussion, to me, about how money is spent, and I think that I think we need to come to the table and have these types of hard conversations. You know, how does society best spend money? Is it investing in schools? Is it investing in programs? Is it investing in jails? Is it all or nothing?
You know, an ounce of prevention is very wise. Can we do a better job as society? I think there’s no doubt we can.
Floyd: But if the problem is structural racism and governmental institutions—not just police departments, but including police departments—exist to undergird that white supremacy, is meeting at the table ever going to solve the problem?
Shea: Well, that’s what I take away from this past year. Last year, now that I think is a positive, and can be a real force of change—that we’re having these conversations.
And you know, conversations alone don’t get it done. And it’s got to lead to something.
I don’t think this is the beginning of it. And I think there’s been a lot of work done over the last, you know, if you look back 10, 20, 30 years, you want to go 50 years, there’s been progress. Some would say, maybe no, that hasn’t…I think most people would say [there] has been progress.
How do we build on that? And move it forward even to a better place.
Floyd: What about the unions? Let’s say we’re at the table. We are trying to make change. Does this include maybe rethinking or restructuring the way the unions interface with the department? Because they have to evolve too. Don’t they, if we’re going to have real change?
Shea: Everyone has to look in the mirror and there have been many that have been critical of the unions. There’s been many that have been critical of me personally. And you could probably say that about many different people.
Floyd: I’m not criticizing any particular person, or even a union. I’m talking about the structure–the way the unions exist to obviously protect their members and therefore sometimes, by definition, get in the way of change.
Shea: I don’t think that’s an unfair statement. I mean, you hit it on the head.
The union exists to work for the benefit of the workers. I don’t think that’s shocking to most people. There’s certainly been times where they take a position of defending their members and that upsets people.
There’s also been times that they’ve walked away from defending members when they saw something and said we’re not providing an attorney for that case. So, have they been impeding change?
I mean, ultimately, as the leader of this agency, I’m going to do what I think is right for — and here’s the key — for eight, eight and a half million people. Because I view this position as the police commissioner for all New Yorkers.
For more of Jami Floyd’s interview with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, visit our project 24 Minutes in Mott Haven.