Bratton Resigns. Will James O’Neill Do Better on Street Safety?

Mayor de Blasio announces the transition at NYPD from Bill Bratton (left) to James O’Neill (right).

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced today that he will leave NYPD next month, after a little more than two and a half years as police chief under Mayor de Blasio. He will be succeeded by James O’Neill, a career officer who currently serves as chief of department, the senior uniformed position within NYPD.

On traffic safety, Bratton will leave the department substantially unchanged since he took over from Ray Kelly, although NYPD has made some improvements on the margins.

Enforcement of the most dangerous traffic violations — speeding and failure to yield — has increased in some precincts since 2014. But in many precincts, summonsing for violations like driving with tinted windows continues to outpace the enforcement of violations that actually put people’s lives in jeopardy.

An enduring image of Bratton’s tenure came early on, when officers on the Upper West Side bloodied 84-year-old Kang Wong, an immigrant who did not speak English, after he unwittingly walked away from a jaywalking stop. Instead of directing officers to simply cease issuing jaywalking tickets, Bratton issued a memo calling for “discretion” when stopping elderly or disabled pedestrians for walking against the signal.

The reaction crystallized Bratton’s failure to seriously grapple with how his police department can most effectively deter crashes that kill hundreds of New Yorkers each year and seriously injure thousands more. He seldom personally engaged with the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero initiative and often skipped out on major traffic safety policy announcements.

Bratton didn’t substantially increase the number of trained crash investigators at NYPD, so thousands of pedestrian and cyclist injuries continue to go uninvestigated each year.

Under Bratton, NYPD has reportedly trained precinct officers in the use of the Right of Way Law, which enables police to charge drivers who injure pedestrians or cyclists with the right of way, even if an officer didn’t personally witness the collision. Application of the law remains far below the scale of injuries and deaths caused by hit-and-run drivers, however.

At the precinct level, officers are still in the habit of anonymously leaking information to the press that implies victims are to blame for their own deaths — information that’s often proven wrong later on. Even when police know the victim isn’t at fault, the response to traffic deaths sometimes defies belief. After a hit-and-run driver killed cyclist Matthew von Ohlen in north Brooklyn last month, officers with the 90th precinct were out ticketing cyclists the next day for riding without bells.

NYPD’s periodic bike safety blitzes rarely apply better logic. For every bike lane cleared of parked cars by operations like the recent “Bicycle Safe Passage” initiative, there are stories of harassment and ticketing of cyclists for minor violations that are simply easy for police to catch.

Other indicators of police harassment did move in the right direction under Bratton. The department’s use of racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk declined substantially, continuing a reduction that began under Kelly, though some officers and commanders continue to make unconstitutional stops. Likewise, criminal summonses for bicycling on the sidewalk dropped 80 percent citywide in 2014 but remain prevalent in some parts of the city, like the 19th Precinct on the Upper East Side, where delivery cyclists are a frequent target.

Bratton’s successor, O’Neill, was the subject of a profile in the Wall Street Journal last month. At a recent CompStat meeting, the Journal reports, O’Neill told commanders to stop officers from “rolling up on people” in patrol cars, and urged police to be more approachable. He’s also deploying a new method of police evaluation that doesn’t rely on merely counting arrests.

O’Neill came up through the same NYPD that downplays the risk of drivers failing to yield and focuses inordinate attention on low-risk cyclist transgressions. He’ll have to change that culture if NYPD is going to make a meaningful contribution to traffic safety in New York City.

  • Mellow Yellow

    lets start riding critical mass again to ensure that the new leadership makes real commitments and takes action towards #VisionZero

  • J

    Wow, DeBlasio finally grew a spine. Good riddance to Bratton. That callous schmuck seemed to do everything in his power to undermine Vision Zero. He openly challenged the mayor, and now he’s getting his due.

    Goodbye Bratton, you will not be missed.

    As for O’Neill, it sounds hopeful, but the proof is in the pudding, given the abysmal culture at NYPD.

  • Jesse

    It’s not encouraging that Bratton’s replacement is just another “career officer”. The problems with the NYPD are endemic to the culture of the whole institution: generation-spanning cronyism, unshakable faith in its own infallibility and utter contempt for ordinary citizens. Every abuse of police power is framed as just “one bad cop” in an otherwise unimpeachable band of heroes whose methods and motives are unquestionably sound and yet at the same time must never be subject to any scrutiny whatsoever.

    The best fix is a thorough house-cleaning but that seems to be politically impossible as every commissioner repeats the same nostrums of broken windows, terrorism and the “sacrifices” police make that justify the department’s opacity. Perhaps more frightening, however, is that the size and military-grade arsenal of the NYPD coupled with its self-allegiance means that their power is more than just political.

    Fuck tha police.

  • Kevin Love

    Once again, I’ll repeat Robert Wright’s idea that a large portion of the police commissioner’s salary and the salary of other top brass should be dependent upon the number of deaths and injuries due to traffic violence.

    When that happens, suddenly the allocation of law enforcement resources will be data-driven, instead of bigotry-driven.

  • Vooch

    critical mass occurs every rush hour:

    Queensboro Bridge
    First Ave
    2nd Ave
    Lex Ave
    Hudson River

  • Hilda

    I had heard through various channels that the Right of Way Law is limited in how it is enacted, not because of only lack of training on the part of NYPD (although this could still be a large part of it) but because of how the Collision Investigation Squad limits the precinct officers from writing violations once they (the COI) are called in. It would be an amazing investigative report to see the typical process from collision to investigation to results that is currently documented by the NYPD and DA’s offices. There must be established protocol, that if documentation is not available to Streetsblog, perhaps case studies could be reviewed and a narrative created on precedents.

  • J

    THis! THis will change the culture of the police more than a thousand protests. When cycling is normal behavior, done by a large swath of the population, it will be treated fairly. We’re quickly getting there.

  • JamesR

    They truly are a state within the state.

  • Joe R.

    I’ll go so far as to say their entire salary should be dependent upon both crime and traffic violence statistics. If both are unacceptable high, they don’t get paid. Same thing with the officers in the precinct. That will put them in line with what many in private industry go through. If I don’t meet a customer’s needs, I don’t get paid. At all. It should be no different for the police. In fact, maybe we should make them all independent contractors so we can let the bad apples go without the unions or other cops protecting them.

  • Joe R.

    So when does the trial start?

  • AnoNYC

    I always thought he [Bratton] was a bad pick. He’s not compatable with 2016 NYC.

    I have no idea who his replacement is but I fear the same old.

    I guess we’ll find out.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The problem is the rank and file. None of them want to give tickets. You have lazy cops who want to do nothing, and hero cops who want to protect you from bad guys.

    The give tickets when they are put on ticket duty as punishment. Or when, because we have 2.8 times as many officers relative to population as the national average, the brass want to make sure they aren’t goofing off all day.

    That’s why you get quotas. And why cyclists get targeted. “These are the guys who want us to give tickets?” We’ll give them tickets.

    The fact that the cops are trying to browbeat the city into giving them a bigger raise than all the other unions got, even as their pension costs soar, doesn’t help. Whatever DeBlasio wants, he doesn’t. Especially since the police are the only public employees DeBlasio has spoken of holding accountable.

    Unless you are in the overnight hours, when the people to be ticketed are more likely to be drunk or armed, civil enforcement should not be the responsibility of the police, and it should be automated where possible.

  • Vooch

    2.8x ? Truely Janisarries

    what about versus other big US cities ?

  • Maggie

    Its strange to see a big-city police commissioner leave while the force is under a tentacled corruption investigation, and the immediate replacement pick is an insider.

    Hoping for the best from O’Neill. Hopefully he does better with community approaches and ultimately, protecting the safety of people walking and biking (and driving) around New York City. I’d like to see a night-and-day shift from Bratton’s disengagement.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Also, don’t forget the retired officers, who exceed those still on the job.

    The schools work the same way. Lots of people paid to not work, high class sizes.

    Tired of being blackmailed, threatened, charged more, offered less. All while our “representative” (actually we don’t have one) agrees to avoid pointing out these inconvenient facts by “negotiating in the press.”

  • KeNYC2030

    A nice start from O’Neill would be to hear him say “crash” and not “accident,” and “We’re going to do everything we can to get to zero,” in contrast to his unconcerned “we’re not going to get to zero” predecessor.

  • Vooch

    what wpuld Be effect if they needed to work ( like The Rest of us ) for 35-40 year’s to become fully vested in Pension ?

    Ditto question for moving to defined payment Pension rather defined benefit ?

  • neroden

    Disband the corrupt NYPD organization. If they refuse to disarm, then they’re insurrectionists, and the mayor can call out the militia to shut them down.

    This actually happened once before in NY history.

  • neroden

    I don’t think so, because too many parts of the NYPD have been irredemably corrupt. It’s gonna take a thorough housecleaning to remove the malicious gangsters who have taken over too many precincts.


Bill Bratton Will Be the Police Chief Tasked With Implementing Vision Zero

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has selected Bill Bratton to serve as New York City’s next police commissioner. Bratton occupied the same post from 1994 to 1996 under the Giuliani administration and is credited with pioneering data-driven policing techniques. After Bratton left, one of the innovations his deputies introduced was TrafficStat, a system that tracked crash […]

Bratton: NYPD Will Devote “Intensive Focus” to Traffic Violence

At a press conference this afternoon for the ceremonial swearing in of Bill Bratton as police commissioner, Mayor Bill de Blasio took the microphone to express his administration’s commitment to its Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic fatalities within ten years. Bratton followed up with more remarks about how the department will prioritize street safety, saying NYPD […]

No Vision Zero Specifics in Proposed NYPD Budget

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says NYPD is committed to Vision Zero, but the initiative to eliminate traffic deaths is not mentioned in the department’s proposed budget, and it’s not clear how the resources Bratton plans to dedicate to its implementation will be adequate to significantly reduce motorist violence. “Safer streets must also mean safer roadways for pedestrians, bicyclists, […]