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Focus on Serving Neighborhoods: A Conversation With James Essig

Vital City

September 27, 2023

A police commander reflects on 40 years of policing — violence, disorder and the enduring concerns of residents.

A police commander reflects on 40 years of policing — violence, disorder and the enduring concerns of residents.

Vital City · Five Minutes with James Essig

James Essig was the 27th chief of detectives for the New York City Police Department, overseeing about 4,000 detectives, one of the largest groups of investigators in any police department in the world. In New York City, detectives are responsible for building specific cases, from murder to theft, by gathering evidence through interviewing witnesses and examining forensics, documents and videos, among many other things. Each of the city’s 77 precincts has a detective squad, and there are specialized citywide squads dealing with particular kinds of crimes.

Essig grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and followed his brother into the Police Department. Like most cops, he started on patrol with a regular beat; he then moved to a warrant squad in Brooklyn. As Essig describes it, the 1980s in parts of Brooklyn — East New York, Brownsville, Bushwick — were “almost like a war zone. Some of those neighborhoods actually looked like Berlin after the war. They were just burnt-out shells of buildings, steps to nowhere. You would see five steps and then a pile of rubble, just shocking.”

Essig moved up through the ranks, his career in many ways following the evolution of the NYPD’s tactics from street operations that would stop and detain individuals suspected of carrying drugs to large-scale takedowns that could net as many as 50 people in an indictment to an era of “precision policing” where the focus lasered in primarily on those individuals who were shooters and driving violence.

As Essig moved from patrol (the uniformed officers present daily on the street) to detective, his reputation as an investigator grew. He started the Gang Enforcement Team, which focused on specific groups of people driving violence, and the Gun Violence Suppression Team, in which every gun arrest was assigned to be enhanced by a special gun violence investigator.

Essig sat down last month with Vital City to discuss how policing has changed over his career and to share his insights about the rise in shootings during the pandemic and the complexities in addressing tensions between police and New Yorkers.

Credit: Arthur Mount

Vital City: There have been tremendous successes in reducing shootings and murders — particularly in 2017-19, which were all-star years — and then the pandemic hit and shootings doubled, they stayed there, and now they’re coming down. What do you think drove the increase in shootings? Why do you think the clearance rates ended up being so low, particularly in some of the neighborhoods that you’ve mentioned before that struggled, like Brownsville?

James Essig: Yeah. 2018, 2019, we were really, like they say, at historic lows. Seven hundred and something shootings, under 300 homicides. I personally think we started creeping up in September of 2019. You started seeing a little rise in the shootings right after bail reform, right after Raise the Age. So we started heading in the wrong direction, and then COVID-19 hit, February, March of 2020. And the city emptied out, the crime just plummeted.

And then, well, two months later, we had the effect of the Floyd murder. The police all of a sudden became the bad guys throughout the country. So you’ve seen a huge pullback in police services or enforcement throughout the city. We were tied up with COVID-19. We were tied up; I think at one point we had 3,500 people out sick. We were tied up dealing with the demonstrations daily. The police officers felt like they were under siege.

You also had, during that time, no cases, no grand juries, nothing. And I think the bad people felt emboldened, like they could do whatever they wanted. And not only the violence, I’m not talking about just the shootings and the homicides, where we went from 750 or 760 up to almost 1,600 shootings, and we went from 285 homicides to 462 (in 2020) or 488 (in 2021). It was just everything, you’d be driving your car to work and people were just out of control.

I just think for a while there, for six months, the police not only in New York City were back on our heels. We didn’t know how to respond. It was a tough time. The tide has changed over the last year or so, and I think that’s helped, and the police are starting to get back to doing what they have to do. But I think for that part, between the two laws, bail reform and Raise the Age; COVID-19, which shut everything down, including our courts; then Floyd, police backing off — it really was a cumulative effect. It was the perfect storm.

VC: I’d be interested in what you’ve seen in either an evolution or an ebb and flow in the relationship between the police and neighborhood residents. And I’m asking that particularly thinking about the COVID-19 time, when it seems like residents pulled back also.

JE: I might be the outlier on that. And I’ll tell you, I always thought a certain percentage of the people love the police no matter what we do. A certain percentage of people hate us. And the average person, when they call 911 or 311, they just want that police officer to show up, be responsive, be professional and take care of that problem.

So I think during that time, I think just the voices on the one side rose up and quieted down everybody else. Everybody else was afraid to speak.

Some police officers want to imagine a time when everyone loved them. But in the 80s, it was the same way. When we shot Eleanor Bumpurs, people were rising up. In the 90s, when they had the Amadou Diallo incident and the Abner Louima incident, people were screaming and yelling.

I think the police-community relationship now is very good. I think the average person respects us and likes us and what we’re doing. But they don’t need us on a daily basis. When they need us, they want us to do our job.

When you’re in the public eye, you represent the NYPD, you represent government, you represent everything. You’re the person in uniform, you’re the government representative. Act professionally.

You go to community council meetings, there’d be 25, 30 people there. Very nice people. Some came to air grievances. If you took care of their grievances, you’d never see them again. The average person goes to work, they come home, they want to have $10 in their pocket to buy their kids ice cream at the end of the day. That’s what they want to do. But they want their police officers to be professional and responsive.

VC: There’s been so much focus on the relationship with residents, and obviously you want residents to trust the police so that they will report crimes, they’ll be jurors, all of those kinds of things. What is the most effective way to build a connection?

JE: Be a professional. You can have a hundred encounters, and if you’re driving into work tomorrow and a cop pulls you over and is an idiot, what do you think of the Police Department?

If you go out and your car’s broken into and you call 911, and we take five hours to get there, and you’re waiting to go to work, and when the cop comes, he really doesn’t give a damn, you’re like, “They’re throwing a barbecue here for the kids, but do your job.”

Like I tell everybody, just do your job. Do it professionally. When you’re out in uniform or when you’re out there in a suit being a detective, all eyes are on you. So if you’re sitting there on a corner with your back leg up on the wall and looking at your cellphone, people have an impression of you. And no matter all the community policing in the world, talking nice, putting out all these fancy slogans, if you have a bad interaction with a cop, it’s going to be bad.

VC: It’s a very human reaction.

JE: Yeah. Hey, listen, everybody has a bad day. Nobody wants to get pulled over, nobody wants to be told yes or no. But I think if you do it in a professional manner, the average person will say, “Okay. They look good, they acted the part. They helped me as best they could.” Or if I’m a victim of a crime, “They couldn’t catch the guy, but he was very respectful. He took the questions, he looked around, he was concerned.”

When we don’t do that, all the community affairs in the world aren’t going to correct that.

When you dealt with the community, all it took was two or three dopes, dopey interactions, saying the wrong thing, and that’s the lasting impression.

VC: Being a precinct commander or a supervisor of any kind must be so important because that’s the message you’re trying to send to your guys. They can get trained one way or they can get trained another way.

JE: When you’re in the public eye, you represent the NYPD, you represent government, you represent everything. You’re the person in uniform, you’re the government representative. Act professionally.

Don’t have a barbecue. Correct the stuff that they’re complaining about now.

It’s very hard to do, when you’re dealing with 35,000 police officers, having millions and millions of contacts a year. But all it takes is one really bad incident, and all of a sudden everybody says, “Hey, where was all that community policing that was for five years we were developing trust? It just went in the wastebasket.” Then people say, “Well, I was aggrieved with this. I was aggrieved with that. I was stopped here. They treated me like garbage.” That’s when you get all that outpouring of that sentiment. So the thing is, don’t have a barbecue. Correct the stuff that they’re complaining about now.

VC: Do you think detectives, because the way that they work permits a different kind of interaction with residents — they’re working on solving your case — might have a naturally better relationship out of the box than patrol, which has a more fleeting contact with lots and lots of people, and the chances that someone may do something uncalled for could be higher just as a numbers matter?

JE: Yeah. So for instance, you have a patrol cop in the 44th Precinct [a busy precinct near Yankee Stadium] on a 4:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. shift. In his eight-hour tour, he might run and answer 25 different calls for service, whether they be crimes, accidents, disputes, you run the gamut. So he’s going from here to here to here. Maybe he just didn’t have the time to explain.

Whereas the detective, now he gets your case and he’s overwhelmed, now their caseload is really extraordinarily high. But they’re trying to solve that case. So they need that complainant’s input, so they’re going to ask questions, which would be more, “Hey, who did this? Where’d they run? What was the description?” So I think the complainant in that is saying, “Hey, I’m starting to make some progress,” hopefully. There are some people who feel that the detective didn’t care, and that sets back the other detectives.

In improving community relations, if there were a magic pill, we would’ve taken it already. There’s no easy answer for it.

VC: Now we are seeing shootings and murders starting to go down, though not to the lows that they were before the pandemic. So I’m wondering if you could either change anything or introduce something new or do something that PD is already doing, but do it differently or do more of something or do less of something to reduce the violence, what would you do?

JE: Well, I think we’re getting a good handle on the violence. The courts have opened up again, we’ll probably wind up at around 1,000 shootings this year, significantly lower than last year, though still about 25% higher than 2019.

Our issues right now with the shootings are autos, scooters, masks, very difficult to prosecute. But we’ve become very good with our video collections, tracking vehicles, tracking cellphones, tracking electronics, social media, following up on people, identifying who are the worst of the worst and taking them down. So I think you’re going to see shootings continue to drop. They might not drop down to that 750 level [of 2019], but from the high of 1,600 we did a couple of years ago, probably doing around 1,000 — still way too high.

My personal concern is that we are putting so much effort into the shootings that we are kind of neglecting the quality of life in the city. And that’s what the overwhelming majority of people care about.

I’ve had four different commands, I’ve gone to hundreds and hundreds of community meetings, I don’t think I’ve gotten asked about a violent crime ever, maybe once or twice. It was always the loud music, the drinking, the drugs on the corner, the prostitution, the craziness, the filth, the car break-ins, they’re taking my catalytic converters. That’s what everybody’s concerned about.

So right now, I know we have a huge emphasis on that violence because we have to get to violence, but that’s the issue.

To me, it’s not just an NYPD problem. You see it across every major city in the country. How do the police enforce that quality-of-life issue? That’s what the community wants. But that first time we go out and we grab that beer-drinker on the corner and it goes bad, what happens? That’s when the people are walking down the street right now in New York City, they see that emotionally disturbed person there. They see somebody sleeping on the corner. They see somebody dealing drugs on the corner. They’re seeing prostitutes. They’re seeing graffiti all over. All those petty offenses, how do we enforce them?

My personal concern is that we are putting so much effort into the shootings that we are kind of neglecting the quality of life in the city … I’ve had four different commands, I’ve gone to hundreds and hundreds of community meetings, I don’t think I’ve gotten asked about a violent crime ever, maybe once or twice.

VC: How do you address that?

JE: When I came on in the 1980s, we didn’t do anything. We didn’t care about that. And everybody knows what the 80s looked like.

And then the Giuliani era came and we said, “Hey, we’re going full bore into that.” Did we overdo it? Probably. Where’s that happy medium? And it’s very difficult to do with an organization of 35,000. Because if you say, “Hey, we’re going to go out and then we’re going to enforce beer drinking, and we’re going to enforce low-level crimes, petty crimes out there.” Okay, what do you do? The message to the troops is, “Hey, I need numbers.” And that’s the opposite of what you want.

We don’t want to get the three guys on the corner who are having a beer playing dominoes. You want the gangbangers who are out there causing harm in the community. It’s almost like you have to take how we fight shootings and homicides with the precision of going after the worst of the worst, to go after the quality-of-life offenders the same way.

VC: You’ve got an enormous organization, they have to have clear direction, also have to have discretion.

JE: Yes. Hey, I could sit in my backyard and have a barbecue. Somebody in Brownsville doesn’t have a backyard, so they go to the local park. It’s 9:00 p.m., there’s family, they’re nice, fine. They’re having a great time. The cop comes in and says, “Get the hell out of the park. It’s closed.” They look at you like you’re a nut. “Hey, I’m having a barbecue.” But four blocks down, there’s a barbecue that’s out of control that eventually leads to violence or community complaints. You’ve got to be able to manage that. You just can’t blanket everybody.

It’s difficult, especially for that young cop, that 23-, 24-, 25-year-old cop pushing a radio car with his partner who’s probably the same age. I know I could do it if I was out there, but I have 40 years' experience. Most of our patrol forces have under five years of experience. They’re like, “Oh, now if I get out of the car, I address that, and this guy starts fighting me, yelling at me, I’m going to get a Civilian Complaint Review Board investigation, I’m going to get some other problem. It’s not worth it.” So it’s easier to go to the path of least resistance.

The cop is thinking “I need a number” to show activity. “I’ll go to the person who’s easiest to give it to” instead of addressing the real problem. So that’s a problem. I think it’s not only a problem in New York City. You see it all across the country in every major city and every place now.

If you look in the papers, you’ll see, oh, shootings are down, crime is down. We’re talking about two different and distinct things. The police department is talking about seven major crimes and shootings. The public is talking about drugs on the corner, that scary guy on the train, the guy taking my catalytic converter. I’m paying to go on the subway and 15 people jump over. They’re talking about disorder and quality of life, things that personally affect them.

And we’ve been talking about this for years. You take two steps in the right direction, three steps in the right direction. Then a new administration comes in and oh, we’re going this way now, and everybody’s got to put their stamp on it. We haven’t figured out the playbook yet.

Listen, times change, but hey, this is what we need to get done. The petty crimes, those are the ones that everybody’s concerned about. That’s why you get the perception of crime in New York City being out of control. We’re just talking about two different things. Police talk about the Compstat sheet, people talk about real petty crimes that affect them.