Joseph F. O’Neill, 94, police commissioner under Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and the man who led the department during one of the most contentious periods in its history, died Wednesday, May 22, at a treatment center in Seaville, N.J., where he had been sent after suffering a fall in his Jersey Shore home.
His tenure during the 1970s was buffeted by numerous police brutality cases that damaged the image of the force and led to a first-of-its-kind lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department that claimed city officers routinely relied on excessive force to maintain law and order.
He presided over police response to a 1978 shootout with MOVE activists and a period of tense relations between the department and minority communities.
But amid those controversies, even his sharpest critics described the at-times flinty top cop as a devoted Irish Catholic with a wicked sense of humor, a strong adherent to family values, and a staunch defender of the men and women who served under his command.
“He cared about the city. He cared about his people,” said Philadelphia Police Capt. Louis Campione, who began his career under O’Neill. “There was no sacrifice he wasn’t willing to make for the people of Philadelphia.”
Growing up in South Philadelphia at the height of the Great Depression, the man who would go on to become the police commissioner started out with more limited career ambitions.
Born in 1924, Commissioner O’Neill planned to become an auto mechanic after graduating from John Bartram High School, but he was drafted into the Army during World War II and deployed to Europe as part of the 53rd Armored Engineer Battalion.
While there, he earned a Silver Star for bravery under fire and, later, a Purple Heart.
He returned to his hometown after the war’s end, enrolled at St. Joseph’s University under the GI Bill and began dating a high school classmate, Elinore Newman, who would later become his wife.
Commissioner O’Neill’s career with the department began even before he earned his diploma in 1951. Attending classes by day and working as a beat cop by night, he quickly rose through the ranks after graduation, rotating over the years through stints as the head of the homicide and juvenile crime units.
By the late 1960s, he had caught the eye of Rizzo, the department’s pugnacious commissioner at the time who was eyeing a mayoral run.
Rizzo began grooming Commissioner O’Neill to replace him and, once elected, appointed him to the commissioner’s post in 1971, making him the first college-educated man to hold the position.
Though Commissioner O’Neill’s style differed markedly from his more bombastic predecessor, the reserved leader quickly developed a reputation as stickler for police standards and family values.
“God help you if you were a police officer who got out of your car without your hat,” his daughter Elinor Kolodner said. “He was very concerned about appearance. That’s how you set the tone.”
He was equally dismissive, she said, of officers who failed to live up to his moral standards in their personal lives.
“If an officer stepped out on his wife, you were on his bad list for the rest of your life,” she said.
But despite the strict codes of conduct he sought to uphold, the frequent claims of police brutality — especially against minorities — that began during Rizzo’s tenure continued to plague Commissioner O’Neill’s department.
In 1979, the Justice Department sued him, Rizzo and 17 other city officials, naming them as defendants in a civil rights case that accused them of implementing policies that encouraged excessive force and cover-up within the department.
The case was later thrown out by a federal judge. But during hearings before a federal government panel earlier that same year, Commissioner O’Neill defended his department as “the best in the nation” and denied any pattern of brutality among its ranks.
L. George Parry, who served as head of the police misconduct unit at the District Attorney’s Office during the 1970s, often found himself heading to the commissioner’s office to discuss prosecutions of officers who crossed the line.
“He made it clear that he didn’t think much of what we were doing,” Parry said. “His argument was that he didn’t want his officers to be second-guessed on their use of force or have anything happen that would cause them not to respond promptly to the needs of the public. “
Though O’Neill could be intimidating, Parry grew to admire the commissioner’s commitment to his principles.
“He had these icy blue eyes,” Parry said. “I was in my 30s and he was considerably older. I used to sit there thinking, if this guy ever got really angry he could really mop the floor with me. But he never did. I always found him to be very honorable — a true gentleman.”
Commissioner O’Neill was succeeded in 1980 by Morton Solomon, named commissioner by Rizzo’s successor, Mayor William J. Green III. Afterward, he worked for many years as director of police for Conrail before retiring in 1994.
His waning years were spent enjoying retirement, caring for his wife before her death in 2014 and doting on his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, said Kolodner.
“He was very much a go-getter almost to the last days of his life,” his daughter said.
In addition to Kolodner, Commissioner O’Neill is survived by daughters Anne McCormick and Elinore Kolodner; sons Joseph and Thomas; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
A viewing will be Sunday, June 2, from 7 to 9 p.m. at West Laurel Hill Funeral Home in Bala Cynwyd, followed by a Funeral Mass at noon on Monday, June 3, at St. Matthias Catholic Church.