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De Blasio Downplays O'Neill's Concerns About Closing Rikers

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - There's an unusual tug of war between Mayor Bill de Blasio an Police Commissioner James O'Neill over whether closing Rikers Island will affect public safety.

The mayor dismissed the commissioner's concerns Friday, as experts say the top cop could be right.

De Blasio and O'Neill rarely disagree publicly about anything, but the closing of Rikers Island in favor of building four smaller community jails with a dramatically reduced capacity has the two on opposite sides of the fence.

De Blasio, doing a victory lap after the city council passed the controversial measure, dismissed O'Neill's concern about keeping the streets safe.

"His job, by definition, to be worried about how we keep crime down," de Blasio said.

But the commissioner told CBS2's Marcia Kramer he has real and legitimate worries.

"I'm concerned," said O'Neill. "I'm really concerned going forward with the reduced capacity that we'll be able to keep the city as safe as possible."

O'Neill said he's worried there won't be enough cells to house all the bad guys. The four new jails, located in every borough except Staten Island, will have 3,300 beds. Rikers now houses about 7,200 inmates.

Documents obtained by CBS2 show the city is relying on new criminal justice reforms that go into effect in January and a continued reduction in crime to keep the jail population below 3,300.

CBS2's urban affairs expert Mark Peters says that may be wishful thinking.

"I don't know anybody in law enforcement who believes the NYPD can reduce crime from its already history low level by another 50% and by the way keep it at such low levels in perpetuity," Peters said.

The centerpiece of the city's jail population reduction calculations:

  • Reduce the number of people charged with violent felonies by 1,265
  • Reduce the number of non-violent felons by 1,215
  • And a belief that crime will continue to decline

"Commissioner O'Neill is not somebody who's known to worry unnecessarily. And I don't know that it's wise for any mayor to be dismissing out of hand the legitimate public safety concerns expressed by a police commissioner," Peters said.

We've been talking about this as an entire administration now for several years, and absolutely clear we're going to keep crime down, keep the number of people who have to be incarcerated lower," de Blasio said.

"I think clearly the NYPD has brought crime down. I expect the NYPD will be able to keep crime down. But there's a big difference between keeping crime down and reducing it by something like 50% and never having it go up again," Peters said.

Peters says the city miscalculated, and the next mayor and next city council may have no other choice but to increase the size of the new community jails, or to keep Rikers open.

Rikers Island is supposed to close by 2026.


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