An obituary by Sam Roberts for The New York Times.
Luis M. Neco, who became the highest-ranking Puerto Rican official that the New York City police had ever appointed when he was named a deputy commissioner in 1968, died on Sunday at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by his son, Matthew Neco.
Mr. Neco, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the Bronx with his family when he was 3, was an assistant corporation counsel during the Lindsay administration when Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary recruited him to be a deputy commissioner, in charge of the department’s license division.
The division oversaw the granting of gun permits, which it continues to do, and the accrediting of cabdrivers, which has since been delegated to a separate commission.
Testifying in 1968 in favor of gun regulation before a presidential commission on violence, Mr. Neco said that because of the city’s strict eligibility standards, not a single homicide had been committed in New York in recent years by anyone who had passed muster in the rigid application process and been given a legal gun permit.
In 1970, he was appointed deputy commissioner for legal matters, another nonuniformed post, in which he presided over departmental disciplinary trials, including at least one in which Frank Serpico, the whistle-blowing police detective, testified against fellow officers accused of corruption.
Mr. Neco has not been the police force’s only deputy commissioner of Puerto Rican heritage; Rosemarie Maldonado was named in 2014. Among uniformed officers, Nicholas Estavillo, in 2002, became the first Puerto Rican and the first Hispanic member of the department to reach the three-star rank of chief of patrol.
Mr. Neco returned to the corporation counsel’s office in 1975 as a special assistant. He supervised proceedings involving the condemnation of property in connection with the renovation of the old Yankee Stadium.
In 1976, he was appointed to the Criminal Court by Mayor Abraham D. Beame. He served as an acting Supreme Court justice from 1981 to 1988.
In his column in The New York Post in 1976, Jose Torres, the boxer turned writer, wrote of Judge Neco’s frustration on the bench as he dealt with a young Puerto Rican woman who had been an addict since she was 16 and who had been charged with drug offenses. Judge Neco exhorted her to agree to rehabilitation as an alternative to jail.
“We Puerto Ricans are at the bottom of the ladder in this city,” he was quoted as saying in Spanish. “We have a responsibility to our people. You and I. I’m trying to do my part. Why don’t you try? You are young. You can begin a new life. You can rehabilitate yourself.”
The defendant sobbed, but she refused treatment, and the judge reluctantly sentenced her to 90 days behind bars.
“Being a judge must be a heavy burden for him,” Mr. Torres wrote. “Yet I hope he will endure. For those who come before him will be treated as human beings, not like animals.”
Luis Manuel Neco was born on May 29, 1931, in Yabucoa, in southeastern Puerto Rico, to Jose Maria Neco Arroyo, a bodega owner, and Barbara (Vasquez) Neco.
His parents had arrived at the time of the first wave of Puerto Rican migration to the United States, which followed the granting in 1917 of citizenship to residents of the island. A larger wave came after World War II, and by the 1970s, Puerto Ricans accounted for more than 10 percent of New York City’s population.
After graduating from Morris High School in the South Bronx, Mr. Neco served with the Air Force in Korea, earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College in 1958 and worked his way through Columbia Law School driving a taxi.
His marriage to Judith Chaban ended in divorce. In addition to their son, he is survived by their three daughters, Lynda Joi Neco-Harris, Rachel Hope Neco and Barbara Chaban Elliott; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His second marriage, to Judy Guerin, ended in divorce. His third wife, Frances Ruth Levine Neco, died in 2012.
As a Puerto Rican, Mr. Neco was tolerated in a mostly Irish-American neighborhood, he said, but as he matured he realized that his survival depended on validating his ethnic identity.
“You know when I really came to the moment of truth?” he said to The Daily News in 1968. It was when he was in college, he said, after he read “Ideology and Utopia” by the German sociologist Karl Mannheim, who argued that individuals are defined largely by the context of the group in which they find themselves.
“Finally I said to myself: ‘I know who I am. I am a Puerto Rican and I’m proud of it,’” he said. “When I fully understood that, I was able to proceed intelligently with my life.”