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Immigrant values guide my daily work

The NYPD Commissioner’s shield


By Dermot Shea

When I became the 44th Police Commissioner of the City of New York on December 2, 2019, my mother, Ellen, my wife, Serena, and my three children were at front of the packed auditorium.

As I looked out at the crowd of friends and family, my heart was full: It was a moment I truly had never imagined even as I rose through the ranks of the largest police municipal department in the world. Was I thrilled? Who wouldn’t be?

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As the Emerald Society Pipe Band skirled Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Will Come Again No More,” I thought: “Isn’t that right” for it surely had been a wonderful, challenging journey from the Irish–American enclave of Sunnyside, Queens to the 14th Floor of One Police Plaza, New York’s Police Headquarters and the operational command for more than 55,000 civilians and officers.

And now I would have, as the song suggests, a chance to give back.

And before that came the journey of my father, Richard, from Crettyard in County Laois, where he worked in the coalmines, to New York, where he had hoped to become a policeman. Poor hearing dashed that hope and instead worked as a bartender and a handyman.

My mother had her own journey. From outside Tubbercurry on the Mayo-Sligo border she also arrived in the 1950s to a city filled with many other Irish immigrants and one night to an Irish dance in Manhattan. The boy from Crettyard and the girl from Tubbercurry fell in love and the rest was, as they say, history.

History, of a particular New York kind, where love filled two bunk beds in a one-bedroom apartment with five young children as the young parents, a home maker and a jack of all trades, slept on a fold out couch. There was of course, a dog too.

Looking back reflectively, I can see how this first generation experience was better preparation than I could ever imagine for policing in a city that continues to be filled with new immigrants ready to make histories of their own.

I don’t just understand their experiences, in many ways, I lived them.

My goal, on the eve of St. Patrick’s, is to reach the young of this great city and give them great hope, share with them, as I said in my swearing in, the values, “of sacrifice, love, faith and decency” and the important idea of “treating all people as you would your own family.”

Without a doubt, money must have been tight when I was a boy, but we never felt want, we never missed a meal. I first saw real poverty as a cop in the Bronx, and there I also learned just how much the poor depend on the police, a life lesson that is ensconced in the current policing strategy of the NYPD.

This strategy, while often driven by data, is always driven by compassion. Our emphasis, our empathy, our understanding, is for the victim. Our goal, above all else is preventing victimization and when sadly that is not possible, seeking justice for the victimized.

As a policeman, in many ways, I’ve lived a life close up to the action. As when I was a boy, wrapped in a blanket on the cold sidewalk of Fifth Avenue, waiting for the parade to pass by right in front of me, I felt a sense of awe, I still feel that sense of awe today, the parade of life in this great city is truly humbling.

I guess another lesson, for a boy raised in the Catholic faith, who was taught by the Jesuits, and remembers St. Patrick’s as not just a parade, but a holy day, is that faith in this city comes in so many forms, and is practiced in so many religions.

It is wonderful.

And by living my own very Catholic family, I came to recognize that faith, religion and devotion which are so important to so many are a part of the spine of our city and its public safety. So when I think of public safety, I think also of in many ways protecting the rights of so many to practice their faith, and more than that, to live their spiritual lives to the fullest, here in New York City.

My parents came here like so many others, with a dream for a better life and they instilled in all of their children values that, to this day, make us who we are. Mom, Dad, thank you. I love you.

Dermot Shea is Commissioner of the New York City Police Department