The FANIF Q&A with Inspector Brian O’Neill, Commanding Officer of the Organized Crime Investigation Division

November 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Inspector Brian O’Neill stands on the front line of the fight against the fakes. As the Commanding Officer of the NYPD’s Organized Crime Investigation Unit, a post that he has held for 7 years, he directs the city’s anti-counterfeiting efforts. A Bronx native and graduate of Cardinal Spellman High School, Inspector O’Neill began his police career in 1980 as a patrolman out of the 48th Precinct in Tremont.

Since his early days in narcotics, O’Neill has earned a steady stream of promotions: Sergeant (1985), Lieutenant (1989), Captain (1994), Deputy Inspector(2003). He was promoted to his current post of Inspector in 2007. As commanding officer of the OCIU, he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department’s fight against the fake trade, as well as shaping future investigative and enforcement programs. He has helped grow a division that was called the ‘t-shirt squad’ when it was formed in 1994, the first police unit of its kind in the country, into a dynamic crime fighting unit tasked with defending against an ever-morphing epidemic that costs the city a billion dollars each year.

Let’s talk about education, what do you believe we can do in this area?

We have to keep getting the word out. The profit made from counterfeiting is funding organized criminal groups, and that is bad for everyone. Terrorist groups are the beneficiaries of this money. Child labor continues to be exploited by counterfeiters. This is a significant issue. When you combine these facts with the economic impact counterfeiting has on the city, the NY comptroller has said in the past that the city loses $1 billion a year, which is a staggering number. The importance of the problem is undeniable. We have to tell people about it.

Getting the word out to the consumers who buy fakes, by whatever means necessary, is one of the best ways to fight the counterfeiters. The people who are buying these items need to hear about the reality of their purchase.

What is the real cost of fakes to society?

It funds criminal organizations. It pays for terrorist groups. Tax dollars that could be put to other social programs are spent in the fight. The cost is huge.

How can we increase the visibility of this epidemic?

Corporations need to discuss it more within themselves and with the public. Increased advertising that addresses the problem would also help.

By making government reports that document the problem more visible, like the comptroller’s report, we can educate the public about the size of this problem. When public figures like Ray Kelly, NYC’s Police commissioner and Mayor Bloomberg have spoken, it helps significantly.

How has counterfeiting evolved?

It is constantly evolving. Back in 1994, when the NYPD realized the economic impact this crime could have on the city, we saw that it was growing and had to confront it. The first unit that was assembled to tackle the problem was focused exclusively on trademark infringement. It was nicknamed the ‘t-shirt squad,’ because the emblems, like the Nike swoosh, were being printed, slapped on t-shirts, and sold illegally.

Now, virtually everything is counterfeited: shoes, belts, bags, electronics, auto parts, etc. Auto parts are scary when you think about brake pads. We’ve seen fake Bluetooth devices. Then there are the fake batteries. What happens when they end up in a fire detector?

The way we’ve addressed the problem has changed over time: we started with one unit and now we’ve brought many more into the fight. We have intelligence officers who notify us of counterfeit sales. We use asset forfeiture laws to go after companies that sell. We’ve really expanded.

Even the industry helps by training patrol officers to recognize the false items sold by peddlers.

We have to address all levels from individual street sellers to large-scale distributors, but we want to stay focused on the big outfits: the importers and the manufacturers.

Is counterfeiting more dangerous then it has been?

We have never seen so many items being counterfeited, and they can all be potentially dangerous to everyday life. It’s amazing. Like in most criminal enterprises, if these people put their minds to good purposes, the results would be equally significant. They just chose the wrong path.

How do we improve penalties and enforcement?

We need to make law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges recognize the impact these crimes have, so that they are treated in a proper manner. Again, awareness is the key.

What are the biggest areas of counterfeit growth?

Handbags are always big. And, as an example of intellectual property pirating, we’ve always seen a lot of growth in reproduced DVDs.

Where have you seen the greatest success in enforcement?

We’ve done more seizures with clothing items than in any other area. There was one seizure that netted 19 tractor trailers of fake clothing. Success can also be measured in the police department’s role as a deterrent. We made a sizable seizure of auto parts and made some arrests and since that one incident, we haven’t seen any others like it. Word got out.

How do we need to adjust our message to meet the evolving problem?

It’s the same message, but I think we need to adjust the volume: everybody has to be aware of what they are buying and from whom. They need to be more cognizant of the products they purchase and the effects of buying fakes.

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