BY BENJAMIN FANG
With the catering hall lit up in green lights and a live band playing Irish music in the background, hundreds of business leaders attended the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s annual St. Patrick’s Day luncheon.
The celebration at Terrace on the Park featured a traditional Irish meal of corned beef and cabbage, students from the Fitzpatrick Academy of Irish Dancers, and speeches from local elected officials.
Among the dignitaries in attendance was Ireland’s minister of state for equality, immigration and integration, David Stanton. Visiting the United States for St. Patrick’s Day, Stanton stopped by the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodside to learn about the diversity of Queens, including its rich history with the Irish community.
“Queens is a proudly Irish borough with an active community,” Stanton said. “This is a huge interest to me.”
He noted that 17 percent of the people living in Ireland were born off the island. While that is both positive and enriching, the diversity brings its own set of challenges, he said.
“As a minister, I want to learn from Queens,” Stanton said.
The keynote speaker at the celebration was Police Commissioner James O’Neill, an Irish-American hailing from Flatbush. The top cop spoke about how New York has transformed into the safest big city in America, while also improving community-police relations through the neighborhood policing initiative.
Starting off as a transit cop on the subway beat, O’Neill worked his way up to become precinct leader in Central Park, East Harlem and the Bronx. Throughout his 34-year tenure in the NYPD, O’Neill said he has seen why the department needed to change the way it goes about its business.
In other policing models, officers would respond to radio calls and roll through local streets in their police cars. But O’Neill said there was no interaction with the community in those models.
“There’s no community outreach,” he said. “It’s got to be one and the same. Fighting crime and community relations is the same thing.”
Under O’Neill’s neighborhood policing initiative, neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs) are assigned a sector within a precinct with about 30,000 residents and businesses. They walk the streets of the precinct, making connections and forging relationships with community members and leaders.
They visit local businesses and attend tenant or civic association meetings. Each NCO is given a phone, and are encouraged to give out their phone numbers and email addresses.
Though they still answer radio runs and conduct regular police activity, NCOs spend about one-third of their day making those neighborhood connections.
While attending a meeting with residents, O’Neill was once told that people “want policing to be done with us, not to us.”
“That turned a light on for me,” he said. “That flipped a switch.”
The improvement of community-police relations is essential to continue lowering the city’s crime rates, which have seen record lows in shootings and homicides.
Last year, New York City saw 292 homicides, compared to more than 2,200 back in 1995. There were about 780 shootings last year, but nearly 5,000 in 1990.
“We still have room for improvement, but the city has gotten so much better,” O’Neill said.
He attributes part of that success to the partnerships that the NYPD have with prosecutors, local elected officials and even national law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the ATF.
That’s not to say crime and terrorism are no longer problems facing the city. On his first day as police commissioner 18 months ago, O’Neill oversaw operations dealing with the Chelsea bombing.
There have been three terrorist attacks on New York City in his tenure, including the truck attack on Manhattan’s west side.
But O’Neill said to keep New York as the safest big city, everyone, including the community, has to play a role.
“That’s why we have to make sure we trust the police,” he said. “We have to work our hardest to keep this city safe.”