After more than 40 years on the force, NYPD Chief Joseph Esposito is retiring.
At age 63, his retirement is mandatory, but Esposito says he would stay in the job if he could.
“This is the job I love,” Esposito said in an interview with NBC 4 New York from his 13th-floor offices at 1 Police Plaza Wednesday. “Keeping this city safe, protecting the city, I love doing it. I would do it for nothing.”
For more than 12 years, Esposito was the NYPD’s top-ranking uniformed officer helping to oversee the city’s historic drop in crime. He was also at ground zero when the towers fell on 9/11 and helped implement the NYPD’s new counter-terror strategies. From overseeing security at parades and stadiums, to helping catch killers, to ordering resources in searches for missing children, Esposito’s storied career often intersects with city's history.
He said he is proud to leave with many neighborhoods experiencing record-low crime rates.
“We had a record -ow homicides and shootings last year," he said. "We said, 'What are we going to do in 2013?' And we’re beating those numbers by leaps and bounds.”
Esposito credits new anti-crime initiatives like Operation Crew Cut, which targets violent neighborhood street crews that are believed to be responsible for a large number of the city’s shootings. And he said technological advances like computer crime-mapping to DNA databanks are helping to keep crime low.
It’s a long way from 1971, when he was walking the beat in Brooklyn’s 77th precinct. At that time, officers had to go to a neighborhood call box to call in a crime report or call for backup.
“I sort of make the analogy, we were the Flintstones and now we’re the Jetsons,” he said.
Esposito is a Brooklyn native who credits his family, his faith and his fellow officers for his successful career. He worked narcotics, got promoted to detective and led precincts in three different boroughs before rising to the position of highest-ranking chief. Appointed during the Giuliani administration, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg kept “Espo” in place. Kelly has praised Esposito as a strong, steady hand in his decades of service.
Esposito describes 9/11 as the day that haunts him most.
“For the rest of my life and the rest of a lot of people’s lives, that is a big, big part of what New York City policing is about – preventing the terrorists from hitting us again," he said.
A relentless leader, he is adored by fellow officers who often saw Esposito out on the streets with them day and night. And they know Esposito earlier in his career escaped unharmed in a gun battle with an armed robber who was killed.
“You replay it over and over in your head for a long time. It's never a good thing … you never go to work saying, 'Let me get into a gunfight today,'" he said. "You think about it a lot.”
Esposito reflected on hurricanes, gun buyback programs he helped originate, and successes in solving crimes every day, big and small. But he says some cases still trouble him, like the murder of Leiby Kletzky, who was kidnapped and later killed despite an all-out search to find him. He also said through his last day, he pressed officers to try to find Patrick Alford, who is still missing.
“I’d love to give this family closure. I’d love to find this kid alive out there somewhere.”
Esposito also said the toughest part of the job was responding to scenes where a police officer had been killed in the line of duty and then notifying their loved ones.
Esposito pushed back against critics who say the NYPD goes too far in its stop-and-frisk program or in mapping some neighborhoods as part of its counter-terror program.
“I think the vast majority of people out there agree with the way we are conducting ourselves,” Esposito said. “If you go out on that street and ask the majority of people that are living and working in some of the toughest areas in this city, they are going to say, ‘God bless the police. They are doing what they have to do to keep us safe.'"
"As far as terrorism goes, we do everything within the law. Are we aggressive? Sure, we are aggressive," he said.
As he left police headquarters Wednesday, his longtime secretary Renee Gonzalez gave him a hug. She has retired on the same day. He walked out of 1 Police Plaza for the last time as chief, his family by his side as hundreds of police officers chanted, "Espo, Espo."
He acknowledged that for the first time in a very long time, he no longer had the weight of the city on his shoulders.
“I am going to relax for a day or two. That is what I am going to do.”