WESTY 2023 Honoree: Rebuilding Community Relations 24/7 in the 20th Precinct

Deputy Inspector Neil Zuber, who has run the 20th Precinct on the Upper West Side since 2020, is nearing his 21st year in the NYPD and is part of a cop family. He was promoted to captain on Valentine’s Day 2016, the same day as his wife Leiddy in the Bronx Special Victims Unit received her golden shield following her promotion to detective.

| 05 May 2023 | 02:04

When we popped into the 20th precinct recently to interview its commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Neil Zuber, he asked us if we could wait a few more minutes. He was busy dealing with a woman who a day before had found her 2018 Honda Accord stolen while she was at work.

Rebuilding community relations after COVID-19 and the angry George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 is a crucial part of Zuber’s job today. “I go out on the street almost every day,” he said.

While GLA–Grand Larceny Auto– is not as prevalent on the Upper West Side as in other areas, he acknowledges it is a growing problem in the city. A tracking device had traced the woman’s car to New Jersey and then seemed to stop. Zuber, as calmly as he could, relayed the unsettling news that it was probably taken by an organized car theft ring.

One of the more effective crime prevention devices he advised is very low tech–an old fashioned bar that locks in place on a steering wheel making it next to impossible to steer a car unless the device is sawed off.

Zuber, who now lives in Goshen, in upstate N.Y., grew up in suburban Smithtown, N.Y. After graduating from Boston College with a history degree, he entered the police academy as part of the first graduating class after 9/11. “There were nearly 3,500 of us in that class,” he recalled. “Now they are struggling to get 300 in a class.”

With high recent turnover in the NYPD, he worries, “it’s the people who suffer.” Even if the manpower numbers look almost the same on paper, he said there is a big difference if a rookie officer is replacing a veteran of 20 years who is retiring, or someone with a decade on the job who decides he could make more money with less aggravation elsewhere.

His first year as a rookie C.O. in 2020 had an extraordinary number of hurdles. The 20th Precinct had the second case of COVID-19 recorded in all of NYC and only missed having patient #1 by a few hours.

He was only C.O. for a few weeks when everything shut down. And then that summer came the protest marches over the death of George Floyd, and many tended to end at Columbus Circle in the 20th Pct. “One of the things I am most proud of in that period – our officers did not have a single mass arrest situation. We let them protest.”

His men held the line and never reacted in anger, even though there were some vicious taunts from a minority of people trying to provoke cops. “They were trying to hold us responsible for something that happened a thousand miles away in Minneapolis,” he said.

“I think it is beginning to come around,” he said. “I have yet to go to a community meeting where people say they want fewer police on the streets, or on the subways or in the schools.”

He lamented a recent shooting in a Harlem smoke shop in his former precinct where a suspect shot a victim in the head, and it turned out the suspect was free on bail after shooting at three cops during an arrest in the Bronx in 2021. “If they are not putting away suspects for violent crimes, it makes it very tough to put guys away for property crimes.” While he’s dealt with violent crime in past assignments, in the 20th he said the biggest crimes are shop lifting, identity theft and unauthorized use of credit cards.

He’s worked in Queens, put in a year in the police academy, and was a sergeant in the 34th in Washington Heights. Following his promotion to Lieutenant, he went to housing in the south Bronx, then following his promotion to captain served as executive officer in the 30th Precinct in West Harlem and then the 32nd in Central Harlem, before getting transferred to the 20th Precinct on Valentine’s Day 2020 as commanding officer. “A few weeks after that everyone was washing their hands and wearing masks,” he said.

He worries about growing NYPD turnover. He said officially he is in charge of 154 officers of all ranks, but realistically, he said the number is closer to 100 officers who can answer a radio call.

To relieve some of the on the job pressure, he said he and his wife, who was originally from Columbia, like to do some globetrotting. They got engaged on the Yangtze River while touring in China. “I was probably the only guy who smuggled a diamond into Asia,” he joked. They have been to all seven continents, and the back wall behind his desk at the 20th Precinct has pictures from each of the continents, 21 pictures in all, one column for each continent.

Even though he’s hit the full pension benefit with 20 years under his belt, at 46 years old, he said he is not looking to “put in his papers.”

“I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished everything I set out to do,” said Zuber. “I still feel I have more to give.”