Public Safety Director Jack McManus on the Challenge of Earning Trust

In 2013, Jack McManus, a lifelong New Yorker and former executive officer at the NYPD, took over as director of the Roosevelt Island Public Safety Department. At the time, the department was in a state of upheaval following the sudden resignation of the previous director and community-wide protests objecting to the department’s aggressive policing tactics.

Last month, Francine Elisaia and Mark Strong Shinozaki, 16-year-old Island residents, spoke with Chief McManus about rebuilding Islanders’ trust, retraining the department’s officers, and what work still needs to be done. The interview is part of an ongoing Time Capsule project spearheaded by Island teens in conjunction with the Children, Youth, and Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA).

From left to right: Mark Strong Shinozaki, Jack McManus, Francine Elisaia, and Adib Mansour, chair of the Children, Youth, and Education Committee.


Mark Strong Shinozaki: What did your parents do? Where was your childhood?

Chief Jack McManus: My parents and grandparents were born in the United States. They were of Irish-American descent. My mother grew up in Sunnyside and my father in Flushing. He was in the catering business; he catered to well-off clients on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue. He also ran an executive dining room for the RCA corporation for a while. He became an avid competitive runner when he was 58 years old. He worked three or four jobs to keep the family afloat – which is something I will never forget. He was a big New York Giants football fan.

When we were growing up, my mother was a homemaker. At some point, later on in life, a friend of mine said, “Your mom seems a little upset, do you ever think she might want to work?” He owned a restaurant in midtown. She became a hostess there for close to 10 years. Getting that job was a kind of salvation for my mom. She had her hands full with the four of us – three boys and a girl.

I grew up in the Woodside area, which is 15 minutes away from here – a very tight neighborhood, in some ways similar to Roosevelt Island. However, our Island is unique because everybody knows your name, like the old sitcom, Friends.

Shinozaki: Please tell us about your family.

McManus: My wife and I are very close even though we are not together anymore. She is a personal trainer and runs spinning classes at the Huntington YMCA in Long Island.

I have a boy and a girl, twins; they are 19 going on 20. Right now they’re in college. They’re not quite sure what they want to do yet – which I wasn’t at that age either. (I didn’t go to the Police Academy until I was 26 years old.) They’re both competitive in sports. They take after my father, who was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” [points at a framed page]. They featured my father who competed in track & field and short races. When he was 75 years old, he ran a mile in six minutes 42 seconds which, for his age, was a world record at the time. We all run fast in the family.

Jack McManus, center, at his son’s and daughter’s high school graduation.

Shinozaki: What do you do in your spare time?

McManus: I still like photography. I don’t work to get published any more. I am very fascinated with the quality of the iPhone pictures. I also watch a lot of sports on TV and I coach here on the Island. That is a big love of mine. Probably one of the larger contributions, in my opinion, that I’ve been able to make since being on the Island. It has enabled me to get to know a lot of the younger people and their families. It really means a lot to me.

From Teaching to Policing

Francine Elisaia: You graduated with a Master’s in Communication Arts. What prompted you to get a post-graduate certificate in police management?

McManus: My life’s dream at the time was to become a teacher – which I was for several years out on Long Island. At the time, it was very difficult to find work. It took me two years to actually get a job. I taught health & physical education in a parochial school for two years. You had to love the work because the salary was not enough to sustain a family. I began to take civil service tests, mainly in law enforcement. I took the NYPD test and was hired within five months. I hadn’t had any family members in law enforcement. I took the test with a childhood friend and it grew on me, right from the time I started taking classes at the Police Academy. I lived on the Upper East Side at the time. I graduated with honors and with the second highest overall average in my class. I went from not knowing anything about police work to completely loving it.

The graduate degree was interesting because most city agencies had an affiliation with colleges, and the Police Department had a program with the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) where you could get a scholarship and pay 30% of the tuition. I started off the first semester with a program at the Police Academy where I was working. It was training and learning technology. At that time I was also a still-photographer where I concentrated on track & field. I travelled around the world taking pictures of Olympic trials and big marathons. I moved over to the Westbury campus of NYIT and finished my masters degree in Communication Arts, specializing in TV production.

Elisaia: You served under Commissioners William Bratton and Raymond Kelly while you were working in the NYPD. Please tell us how these experiences shaped your interest in becoming the chief of Roosevelt Island’s Public Safety Department?

McManus: I was fortunate enough to have several positions where I worked directly for Commissioner Kelly, even closer than I did with Commissioner Bratton. Commissioner Kelly was a special person to me. I had ultimate respect for him and still do. A very honest, straightforward man, and I knew when I had to brief him that I had to have everything and then some. What amazed me was that there were many facets in the police department – 36,000 uniformed people – and he knew about everything. He made me better at what I do and I’m indebted to him for that.

He ended up giving me the responsibility to oversee the security for the 2004 GOP National Convention, which required a lot of interaction with other Federal, State, and City agencies. He told me later on he gave it to me because I was a consensus-builder and that I had the temperament to get along with people in other agencies. I certainly was not responsible for the entire success of the event but it went very well for the city. I believe it was the first presidential convention post-9/11.

Public Safety

Elisaia: Before applying to the PSD Chief job, were you aware of the controversial policies adopted by previous PSD Chief Guerra, and were you aware of the demonstrations on Main Street and the massive news coverage?

McManus: I hadn’t read about it before I had the job.

It was a very difficult time to come into this position: there was very little community trust in the department, the morale of the department was just about as low as I’ve ever seen. I certainly read and heard about the demonstrations and how passionate they were. But honestly, what I found, a couple of weeks after I was hired by the former RIOC CEO, Charlene Indelicato, was that this group was not a violent group of people. They just needed someone to lead them and to let them know that there is someone that cares about them.

Then came the outreach to the community, which was tough in the beginning. There were a lot of negative feelings against the PSD. I am not a violent person and would not tolerate violence in this department. I firmly believe, at the time, that there were a couple of officers that were involved in the incidents who eventually were fired. Besides that, we don’t have anyone who is violent. I think we are in an entirely different place right now than what it was when I came in. We have a really dedicated group of men and women now. They don’t get paid very well. A lot of them would spend a couple of years with us, then move on to a law enforcement position; we just saw three of our officers go to the Philadelphia Police Department.

There is always more work to be done. Even after five years in this position, there is no room for complacency.

I would like to publicly thank the men and women of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation Public Safety Department for their efforts in keeping our Island safe. Any successes that our department has achieved is due to their loyalty and hard work.

Shinozaki: Did the situation on the Island, prior to you being hired by RIOC, influence the style in which you handle problems in the community today, as well as your leadership in the department?

McManus: It absolutely did! I would go to as many meetings as I could, and meet as many residents and store owners as I could, and speak honestly. That meant that if we had an incident where there was an issue with it on our end, I had to acknowledge it. Which I did. The next thing was to take steps to change it, no matter what issue it might have been. It is the way I approach things.

Honestly, the transparency wasn’t difficult for me because I ran three police precincts in the city the same way. I looked out for the officers that worked for me. I initiated discipline when it was appropriate. And worked very closely with the community.

But this is a unique place because one of the precincts that I commanded probably had 250,000 people in it. You didn’t have the closeness that you do here. This is a very unique place.

Shinozaki: After reviewing the PSD audit on its past practices and policies, what training procedures and hiring protocols did you initiate to improve your department?

McManus: Let’s start with the hiring practices. Previously, there were a lot of people that worked here who “knew somebody,” and I don’t know how well they were vetted. Right now, our hiring policy, and I don’t have the exact percentages, but we have a lot college graduates here. We recruit from colleges around the city, particularly if they have law enforcement or criminal justice programs.

A candidate is interviewed by the captain, the deputy director, and then myself. We then get together and make decisions about the candidates. I think this process has had a positive effect on the quality of our officers.

I think it is a lot more honest and transparent the way we hire now. I haven’t hired anybody based on a phone call asking, “can you hire this one or that one.”

Elisaia: What additional improvements do you think need to be done to further develop the PSD?

McManus: The recruits in the Police Academy train for six to seven months. We have three weeks of training. By the third week, they’re out walking around with senior officers and supervisors. We’re constantly trying to squeeze training in. Deputy Director Kevin Brown is invaluable; we share a lot of the same values. He trained a lot of people in the NYPD. He teaches at John Jay [College]. So the training is constantly changing. The challenge is trying to make time for that, which we do. Fortunately it is not a violent area; there’s very little serious crime. Not none, very little; which allows us to make the time to get the training in.

Part of the Community

Shinozaki: How has being a volunteer soccer coach with the RIYP aided you in integrating more with the community, especially the youth?

McManus: I knew I always enjoyed coaching, I just didn’t know the effect it was going to have on the community. It enabled me to connect with the youth. Right now I coach with the Senior groups (14 to 17 years old) which is what I call a tender age. If one kid treats another kid in a different way because of the influence I had on him or her as a coach, that is a success. Sometimes you don’t know what kind of effect you have on people. There are conversations I’ve had with my son or my daughter where I thought it was going in one ear and out the other, and then later they were behaving as if they internalized what I had said to them. I am very big on courtesy.

Another important aspect is meeting the parents and other community members that worked on the program. I think it accelerated getting to know the community and allowing the community to get to know me.

Jack McManus, third from left, with the youth soccer team he coached.

Shinozaki: After being on Roosevelt Island for almost 5 years can you tell us what are your top five favorite things about the Island?

McManus: I think, physically, it is beautiful; I’ve taken pictures on odd spring nights of Manhattan and the bridges. I like the fact that it is a very mixed community. I like the diversity. I like the fact that it is close to Manhattan. And I like the people.

I have the luxury to look forward to going to work just about every day. You’ll see as you guys get older, that’s something to be very grateful for because a lot of folks don’t have that.

The Job

Shinozaki: With the new Cornell demographics, how has that affected your daily routines?

McManus: Since they’ve opened up late last September we’ve only responded down there one or two times. What I find is, a lot of the students and some of the faculty that moved in stay around the campus. I think it is going to take a few years to really feel the impact of the school on the Island. We haven’t had to put extra patrols down there. As some of the new industry entities are scheduled to come in here, such as defense contractors, you have to be cognitive of any terrorism-type issues and things like that. I think it is going to take a couple of years to affect this department.

Elisaia: Can you please give us an example of a situation that was either funny, or difficult since you started working on Roosevelt Island?

McManus: There have been some funny ones. Human behavior can be funny. We all do funny things.

In terms of difficult ones, we’ve had some challenges with high-profile crimes. We had a woman who was accosted after confronting a man for smoking marijuana on the sea wall. We’ve had officers who have been here for a long time, and when descriptions of suspects are given, in a lot of cases, we know who it is. We were able to assist the 114th Precinct Detective Squad in arresting that individual.

There was a series of public lewdness incidents on the Island. There were a lot of passions around that. We tried to work closely with the complainants. In any sexual-related offense, the anonymity of the victim is very important. So, as you are working and trying to identify who was responsible, you have to keep that in mind. None of that would have been possible without the trust of the victim who worked with us and the precinct detective squad. We identified one individual who was responsible for two of the public lewdness incidents on Roosevelt Island. It is hard when issues get passionate; sometimes frustration sets in, but we try to be as open as we can about it. Those were a couple of challenging situations.

Elisaia: How do you personally deal with difficult situations such as the public lewdness, altercations, or sexual assaults? Moreover, how do you gain the trust of the victims?

McManus: That’s difficult sometimes, and we don’t always succeed in that. But what you don’t want to do is have the victim feel that they are being a victim again because they were treated in a certain way. I would say once again, try to be as transparent about it as you can be without betraying any identities. It’s hard though, sometimes. In one of the public lewdness situations, we had some issues with failing how we handled and executed our response. We met with the complainant and other groups and made some changes as a result of that.

Admitting that we made mistakes about that was very important. You’re not going to have any momentum in trying to repair that relationship without first admitting you made a mistake.

Shinozaki: Even though it is a small island, there are a lot of varying opinions, and a lot of people feel very strongly about different issues on the Island. How have you been able to deal with certain politics around how things should be run on the Island?

McManus: There are a lot of opinions on the Island. I try to call things as I see them. I’m able to do that because I’ll always respect another person’s point of view while, at the same time, running an honest, transparent department.

There is very little violent crime on the island; but not everybody believes that. We had an incident recently where there were some mistakes made in reporting and cataloguing complaints, where we were accused of intentionally fudging the crime numbers. Kevin and I both have a lot of experience in the NYPD. If you got caught fudging crime numbers, that was the end of your career. I’m honest and would never do it anyway, even if I could get away with it. It’s crazy. There is no place here to hide victims or complainants. So I could tell you definitively that there was absolutely no sinister stuff going on with the reporting of crime by this department. The challenge is if there is a violent incident, it is hard to convince people that Roosevelt Island is overwhelmingly an extremely safe place to live.

Body Cameras

Shinozaki: How do you feel about the use of body cameras on PSD officers and how do you think body cameras could change policing dynamics?

McManus: We don’t have them right now, but we looked into getting them. There are very few police departments in the State that had adopted them at the time. I think they can be helpful and I am supportive of them. The officers are also in support of them, because it actually protects both the public and the officer. It could protect the officer from frivolous complaints, and it could prove that an officer was disrespectful to somebody.

So we’re continuing to look into it. I think they’re positive. The NY State Police Department will eventually have officers on patrol with them; so we use their data to look into it. I think it would help more in the interaction between the officers and the public than in reducing crime. We’re open-minded about it and may have a pilot [program] down the road.

Marijuana Law

Elisaia: The law around marijuana public smoking has been widely misunderstood. Please explain the rules and the procedures that PSD officers follow.

McManus: When you’re out in the public you cannot have a lit marijuana cigarette; that’s pretty much it. Our interactions involve folks that are smoking in public, since that continues to be illegal. It is a violation, which makes it eligible for a summons.

I actually think over the last year or so, public smoking has decreased. RIRA’s Public Safety Committee had an educational campaign. We put up posters – some of them were vandalized. But I just spoke with Vishu Grover, the principal of the Child School, and she said, “You know those signs you put around the school… we smell much less marijuana.” She thinks they’ve had a positive effect.

I spend most of my time outside, and I’ve noticed a decrease in public smoking of marijuana.

Gun Control Debate

Shinozaki: With regards to the current debate on gun control, what are your thoughts on this issue as the chief of PSD?

McManus: I personally firmly believe in gun control. You’d have a hard time convincing me the prudence or necessity of having a semiautomatic rifle to hunt. I’m sure there’ll be people who’d disagree with me, but it is important for us here, in New York, because of the amount of crime that happens with weapons. The New York gun laws are mainly sufficient. There’s always room for improvement and you’re balancing that with amendment issues.

Elisaia: Do you envision the PSD would ever need to be armed?

McManus: I do not foresee it in the near future. I hope that day never comes. But an ongoing pattern of violent crime being committed with guns could necessitate PSD being armed. There is this effect that one has with a gun: the officers get challenged more. Sociologists would probably answer this better than I can, but we depend more on our verbal skills. That’s where a lot of our training comes in.

The Future

Elisaia: Looking into the future, have you achieved all your goals you set [for] yourself when you started working on Roosevelt Island?

McManus: In this type of work, you never really reach a plateau where there is no crime. We have ways to go before we’re a state-of-the-art department. We have a very supportive CEO, Susan Rosenthal. We’ve never been denied money for training. And you have to stay current in order to be effective.

I think we have a much better relationship with the community, both on the community side to trust us and the officers’ side to inspire that trust. We will continue to professionalize this department – they way they look, the way they react. The officers have been getting specialized training from the NYPD, which has been very helpful.

Elisaia: How do you foresee the future of the PSD in 25 years? How do you think technology would take part in that future?

McManus: I think there will be tremendous gains in the forensic area, which will have tremendous results in the apprehension of individuals.

Community policing is not a phase. I look at it as a way of treating people and that shouldn’t change in 25 or 50 years. The way the community is right now, it needs a service-oriented PSD. I would hope it stays like this.

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