The Story Behind the Police Commissioner’s Handwritten Stonewall Apology

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Faced with a renewed call last week to apologize for the 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn, the New York Police Department proclaimed that the “N.Y.P.D. of today is much different than the department of 50 years ago.” It alluded to “important changes” made to “bring the police and all the communities we serve closer together.”

What it did not do was offer any acknowledgment of wrongdoing or regret for the raid that led to days of street protests, a seminal moment that galvanized the modern gay rights movement.

Shortly after the statement’s release, the city’s police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, had misgivings. “Through the afternoon and through the night,” Mr. O’Neill recalled, “I knew we had to do more.”

He began scribbling a full-throated apology on notecards, and kept them in his breast pocket. He told no one what he was writing, drafting it longhand, on the fly. No call to the mayor. No high-level meetings.

“I wanted it to be my words,” Mr. O’Neill said in his first public reflections on delivering the apology. “If we’re going to move forward as a police department and as a city, the past has to be acknowledged.”

The decision to admit failure and apologize can be a fraught moment for police commanders, who risk fueling legal action or alienating rank-and-file officers. Even in an era of reconsidering criminal justice tactics and increased accountability, apologies remain exceedingly rare.

Mr. O’Neill’s apology landed amid renewed outrage over the case of the so-called Central Park Five, black and Hispanic teenagers arrested and convicted of a brutal 1989 rape they did not commit. After a Netflix mini-series recently dramatized the case, Linda Fairstein, who ran the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit at the time, was forced to resign from a number of prominent boards and was dropped by her publisher.

The city reached a $41 million settlement in the Central Park Five case, but offered no apology; in fact, the settlement included language from city officials maintaining that prosecutors and police detectives did nothing wrong at the time.

“The culture would say, whatever you do, you don’t want to apologize,” said Charles Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. “What you’re seeing today is a recognition that if you’re going to talk about community trust and accountability, the most important thing to be is honest when you make a mistake.”

Mr. Wexler added: “You have to pick your moments. It’s not going to happen every day. You’d lose credibility.”

Officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, shortly after midnight on June 28, 1969, a time when the state had laws against cross-dressing and sodomy. Some patrons were subjected to anatomical inspections.

Crowds, fed up with police harassment, gathered outside and clashed with officers. Days of street protests followed, becoming a major turning point in the movement for gay rights.

But even as decades passed, discriminatory laws fell away and same-sex marriage became legal, the Police Department did not formally account for its actions.

In 2016, for example, William J. Bratton, the department’s two-time commissioner, refused to apologize for Stonewall, saying it was unnecessary. Mr. O’Neill himself declined to do so the following year.

All of that weighed on Mr. O’Neill as he internally wrangled with an apology.

“I didn’t tell anybody,” Mr. O’Neill said. “I made the decision that morning.”

His words represented a break from the past for the department and for Mr. O’Neill, who rose to the top policing job in New York City under Mr. Bratton’s wing. But with the city hosting a global gathering known as WorldPride to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the uprising, pressure was building.

“I think it would have been humiliating not to have done this,” said Ann Northrop, a longtime gay activist. “And look what they got: worldwide publicity. They look like good guys.”

The remarks drew praise from gay rights advocates, who have long pushed the Police Department to formally apologize.

“The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize,” Mr. O’Neill said as he stood on a stage at Police Headquarters, with gay and lesbian officers and community members around him.

The remarks drew applause in the auditorium.

Their genesis came less than a day earlier.

Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, called for the department to apologize in an interview with 1010 WINS.

Mr. Johnson, who is gay, said he did not speak with Mr. O’Neill after his radio appearance, though he said he discussed the issue with Mr. de Blasio during a meeting on the budget that evening.

“We talked about it for less than five minutes,” Mr. Johnson said. “He was positive about it. But there was no commitment. He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to make the N.Y.P.D. do this.’”

Mr. O’Neill hand-wrote the apology while moving between an event with police widows at Citi Field on Wednesday night and morning meetings and a graduation ceremony on Thursday.

Though he did not discuss the apology with others beforehand, he said he was reasonably confident it would be well received.

“Was I 100 percent sure it was the right thing? When is any human being 100 percent sure,” Mr. O’Neill said. “But I knew — I knew — that this was an issue that weighed heavily and I knew it had to be talked about this month and it would not be the same WorldPride month unless it was addressed.”

Mr. O’Neill said he spoke with Mr. de Blasio the next day, on Friday. “He was more pleased than surprised,” he said.

A press secretary for the mayor declined an interview request for Mr. de Blasio, who spent the weekend campaigning for president in Iowa. “The mayor is proud to have a police commissioner who cares so deeply about healing the wounds of the past, building bridges and creating a new reality,” the press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, said in a statement.

Mr. O’Neill said that while he wrote his remarks specifically about the raid on the Stonewall, they also could apply to the years of discrimination faced before and after by gay New Yorkers at the hands of the police.

“We’ve evolved,” he said.

Mr. Wexler, the policing expert, said that was the point of such an apology. “People say we have to change the culture,” he said. “It’s not just apologizing for what happened; it’s saying this is what this department stands for.”

The department, still faces criticism for its treatment of transgender New Yorkers, and recently made changes to its procedures to settle a suit over arrests of transgender women for prostitution. Mr. O’Neill said that no one should be arrested because of their identity.

As for the apology, Mr. O’Neill, a career police officer who was raised in Brooklyn, tried to deflect the spotlight that had swung his way.

“I’m not looking at this like some big courageous act,” he said. “This was done because it’s the right thing to do. Pure and simple.”

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