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Mayor's 'Seamless Transition' Between NYPD Commissioners Has Pros and Cons

 Commissioner Bratton announced he will leave his post in September and be replaced by NYPD Chief of Department James O'Neill.
Commissioner Bratton announced he will leave his post in September and be replaced by NYPD Chief of Department James O'Neill.
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Ben Fractenberg

NEW YORK CITY — Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said he expects a "seamless transition" when he steps down next month and Chief of Department James O'Neill takes charge of the country's largest police force.

That could be both good and bad news for Mayor Bill de Blasio, political observers say.

The mayor needs to continue to keep crime low as he deals with a series of federal investigations into his fundraising. Rising crime could deal a critical blow to the re-election hopes for an administration whose competence in managing the city is being questioned by potential rivals.

"It seems like O'Neill is very close to Bratton," said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. "And it's not like Bratton is walking out immediately. It'll be in another month and a successor has already been named. It seems like an orderly transition."

But proponents of police reform, a force that helped propel de Blasio from fourth place in the 2013 Democratic primary to Gracie Mansion, say that O'Neill is likely to continue Bratton's most significant policy of focusing on small crimes to prevent larger ones — so-called "Broken Windows" policing — that disproportionately targets blacks, Latinos and the poor.

"As long as Mayor de Blasio and the new police commissioner continue with discriminatory broken windows policing and failed accountability for officers who abuse and brutalize New Yorkers, the same problems will exist and this administration will have failed to provide systemic change," said Anthonine Pierre, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform.

The change also comes after the departure of multiple high profile members of the de Blasio administration in recent months. De Blasio's chief counsel Maya Wiley recently resigned and press secretary Karen Hinton left after less than a year on the job and advised the mayor to develop a "tougher skin."

"Whatever the real reasons are for Bratton's departure, people are going to view this as another example of an inept administration in turmoil," Sherrill said. "Whether that's actually the case or not, this is clearly an administration that needs good news."

But by naming O'Neill, police reform advocates say the mayor may have missed out on a chance to win some good will within his political base.

"Good riddance to Commissioner Bill Bratton," said Glenn Martin, a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA. "Hopefully incoming Commissioner Jim O'Neill will have the values and political courage to loosen the grip of New York City’s failed criminal justice system."

As it has been throughout his tenure, de Blasio's praise for Bratton was effusive during the City Hall press conference announcing his resignation.

"I wish I had words for what this man has achieved," said de Blasio, who called Bratton an "extraordinary partner."

Despite criticism from police reform advocates, Bratton has overseen the continued reduction in the number of stop and frisks, which a federal judge in 2013 ruled violated the rights of black and Latino men.

Bratton was also in support of a shift in how the city deals with low-level offenses such as marijuana possession, public urination and public drinking. Bratton agreed with a plan to ticket rather than arrest people carrying 25 grams or less of marijuana in most instances.

But as First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, who is staying in his current job, acknowledged: "Our relationship with the community is still challenged."

Bratton, on Monday, refused to apologize to Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake after he was slammed up against a gate by police over the weekend. The mayor said a full investigation was necessary but expressed to Blake that he was sorry the incident occurred.

Blake said it was "a perfect time for a change in leadership at the NYPD."

In a press conference with the Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem, Blake said it was a good sign that O'Neill had reached out to him after the incident.

"It sends a powerful message that he would do that even as the outgoing commissioner refused to apologize," Blake said.

De Blasio said O'Neill is going to delve further into community policing efforts.

"This is the man who created that vision of neighborhood policing," de Blasio said. "He is ready to take this department where it’s never been before in terms of a truly deep and consistent bond between police and community."

O'Neill agreed, saying he has helped lead the department away from a "style of policing" that alienates the public and toward one that does not come "at the expense of losing the line of support from the people we were sworn to protect.”

Sharpton, one of de Blasio's strongest allies in the black community, said the mayor called him before announcing Bratton's resignation. He refused to endorse O'Neill.

“We are going to reserve judgment,” he said. “I do not have any expectations.”

With Bratton's departure, the mayor has lost a shield for his already tumultuous relationship with rank-and-file police officers, Sherrill said.

Members of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, one of the last major unions without a contract, protested de Blasio outside of Gracie Mansion Tuesday and in Park Slope, at the gym where he goes to exercise in his old neighborhood.

And it wasn't long ago that officers turned their backs on de Blasio at the funerals of two slain officers.

"Part of Bratton's job was to run interference not just with the public but the PBA and that could be one of the areas where Bratton said enough is enough," Sherrill said. "It doesn't help the mayor that he's leaving."