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Black Deputy Commissioner Passed Over for Top Job Conceded NYPD Racial Struggles

Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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The highest-ranking black person in the NYPD acknowledged on Wednesday that he’s “disappointed” at being passed over for promotion to police commissioner in favor of Dermot Shea, who’s white — a hiring choice that has Mayor Bill de Blasio on the defensive.

“But at the same time, it’s the mayor’s call,” said First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, New York City’s second most powerful cop and the official in charge of the ongoing efforts to diversify the force.

Tucker didn’t offer much more insight on Wednesday, but he strongly defended the department’s methods of promotion in a lengthy August interview with THE CITY, while also acknowledging racial gaps in the top brass and the legacy of “stop and frisk.”

Asked by THE CITY to respond to data showing that nearly 80% of the top ranks of the NYPD are non-Hispanic white in a city where 32.5% of the population is non-Hispanic white, supervising a police force that is 45% non-Hispanic white, Tucker dismissed the need to meet what he called “a magic number.”

Drawing a contrast between a long and discriminatory history of cops advancing with the help of family and ethnic ties and current practices, Tucker asserted that promotions today are “not because of who they know and who they’re related to. We’ve gotten better at doing that. We’ve tried to level the playing field.”

Said Tucker, who began his career with the NYPD in 1969, “We tried to across the board to create an environment where what you look like is less important than how you lead.”

Mayor Under Fire for Consistency

On Monday, the mayor announced he’d picked Shea, a white male of Irish descent, to take the place of outgoing Police Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill, also a white male of Irish descent.

Several elected officials criticized the mayor’s choice.

“At a time when the relationship between police and communities of color couldn’t be worse, we chose yet another white guy?” tweeted Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, D- Queens, on Monday. “We have many qualified men and women of color within the NYPD who could lead the force in the right direction. What gives?”

Councilmember Donovan Richards, D-Queens, tweeted mixed feelings Monday: “While we congratulate @nypddetectives Shea on his elevation to police commissioner, this was a missed opportunity to ensure the diversity of the department was reflected at the very top of the NYPD.”

On NY1 Monday, when host Errol Louis asked the mayor about this, de Blasio promised the top ranks would soon become much more diverse and defended his selection.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks about passing over First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker to take over the NYPD's top job during a crime stats press conference on Nov. 6.
Mayor Bill de Blasio answers questions about passing over First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker for the NYPD’s top job during a press conference on Wednesday. Photo: Screengrab/NYC Mayor’s Office/YouTube

“Everyone has to understand that this particular job, you know, when it comes down to it, we’re asking one human being to do extraordinary set of things and there’s, you know, that’s a special calling,” the mayor told Louis.

In his interview with THE CITY, Tucker didn’t deny the NYPD top ranks still don’t look like the city they police.

“We have to acknowledge that we have these gaps,” he said. “But that doesn’t fall short of my point that the folks that we’re putting in these jobs are qualified to do these jobs. Otherwise they wouldn’t be promoted.”

First-Hand Knowledge of The Bad Old Days

Tucker, who joined the force at a time when most of the department was white, in August recalled his initial reluctance to sign up in a department that routinely targeted black and Hispanic youth.

“My friends and I used to get hassled all the time,” he recounted. “We used to get stopped and frisked. If that’s your reality, if that’s the reality of a young black guy growing up in the city, your first choice is probably not to become a police officer.”

Ultimately he decided that joining the force would provide him with job security.

“I didn’t really like cops. I didn’t hate cops. But I went,” he said. Joining the NYPD, “I thought this was insurance for me. That’s how I looked at it.”

At age 19 he became a trainee and soon after entered the academy, rising through the ranks — with some time in between to work for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to take the second highest position in the nation’s biggest police department in the nation.

“It was the best decision I ever made because I had the opportunity to come into the department as a trainee and learn the job from the ground up,” he said.

But he acknowledged that the pervasive stopping and questioning tens of thousands of New Yorkers —  predominantly black and Hispanic — created a schism between the community and the NYPD that still lingers.

The tactic, embraced enthusiastically by former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly during Mayor Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure, was found by a federal court to be unconstitutionally applied. Its use was dramatically curtailed in Bloomberg’s last two years, and continued to decline under de Blasio.

But the distrust stop-and-frisk fostered — along with the criminal records overpolicing created — continues to hamper the ability of the department to recruit black people to the force. In the last five years, analysis by THE CITY found that the number of black patrol officers has actually declined, while the number of Hispanic and Asian officers has increased significantly.

Tucker remains frustrated by that legacy as he sees the department struggle to convince young black men and women to step forward and sign up.

“The disparate impact of those stops on the African American community and to some degree the Hispanic community was devastating,” he said. “That’s one more answer to your question about why people are not coming in.”

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