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Is Eric Adams New York’s Best Mayoral Hope?

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eye on the news

Is Eric Adams New York’s Best Mayoral Hope?

Cops, in particular, are wary of the supposed law-and-order candidate. June 7, 2021
New York
Politics and law
Public safety

If Eric Adams wins New York’s June 22 Democratic mayoral primary, all but guaranteeing a win in November’s general election, he would be only the second former police officer to preside over city hall. (William O’Dwyer, mayor from 1946 to 1950, was the first.) Adams retired from the New York Police Department in 2006, served four terms as a New York state senator, and is now Brooklyn’s borough president. Many New Yorkers, desperate for a mayor who will fight the city’s rising violence, have embraced Adams’s candidacy, encouraged by his recent statements in support of law enforcement.

NYPD cops and commanders, however, are decidedly unenthusiastic. A newly retired captain with 26 years on the job characterizes the choice of Adams versus the other candidates as: “Do you want to break your right leg or your left leg?” A lieutenant observes that Adams will “say and take any position that will help him”—what he actually believes is impossible to know. A retired sergeant from the detective bureau reports: “Many cops thought he was an out-and-out racist and two-faced phony.”

Adams’s public persona during his nearly two decades on the force was as the leader of the activist group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. In that role, he relentlessly called the NYPD racist. His most influential contribution to public policy came during the long-running lawsuit Floyd v. New York. That case, brought by a coalition of civil rights organizations and elite law firms, challenged the constitutionality of the NYPD’s pedestrian stops (sometimes known as “stop, question, and frisk”). As a plaintiffs’ witness, Adams accused then–NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly of announcing: “We stop African American and Hispanic youths because we want to instill the fear in them that every time they leave their home, they can be stopped and searched by the police.” Kelly issued this pronouncement twice, according to Adams: first during a July 2010 meeting with then-governor David Paterson, state assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, and state senator Martin Golden; and second at an August 2010 policing forum at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College.

The allegations were incredible. Uncharacteristically, Adams said nothing about Kelly’s statement until Floyd. Nor did any of the other attendees at the two meetings utter a word about Kelly’s purported admission of racial intimidation. Martin Golden denied that Kelly said anything like what Adams claims; then–NYPD deputy inspector Juanita Holmes, who attended the Medgar Evers gathering, testified at the trial that Kelly did not make the comment that Adams attributes to him; and Kelly swore by affidavit that Adams’s charges were untrue.

Even without these sworn denials, the accusations didn’t make sense. Kelly had met with Paterson in 2010 to try to persuade him to veto a bill that the NYPD deemed inimical to crime-fighting. All the officials except for Golden at that July 2010 meeting were black, yet according to Adams, the commissioner chose to make his case by stating that the NYPD gratuitously harasses blacks. This scenario was just as fanciful regarding the Medgar Evers meeting, whose audience included the Central Brooklyn Black Legislative Coalition.

U.S. district judge Shira Scheindlin had a low threshold for crediting anti-NYPD evidence, however. Her opinion, declaring the department guilty of unconstitutional conduct, cited Adams’s testimony to support her finding that NYPD top brass approved of racial profiling. Scheindlin referred to Adams’s testimony again in accusing Kelly of suggesting “that it is permissible to stop racially defined groups just to instill fear in them.”

Adams brags of his role in the case. “Inside the ruling the federal judge acknowledged it is Eric’s testimony that talked about the abuse in the police department,” Adams said during a mayoral debate this month, speaking of himself in the third person. And he continues to make statements that stretch the limits of credulity. He claims to have been instrumental in building the “first computerized system for tracking crime in the city”—referring to the heralded CompStat crime analysis method developed in 1994 under then-commissioner William Bratton. That instrumental role is news to several of CompStat’s architects. Perhaps, one of those architects speculates, Adams is referring to his time in the transit bureau before Bratton took over the NYPD. But that bureau was still using pin maps, not computers, for crime-tracking. A former chief says that Adams’s claimed role in creating CompStat is “akin to me working the assembly line at a Tesla factory tightening the lug nuts on the tires and claiming I was instrumental in the development of Tesla automobiles.”

Though Adams now portrays himself as a supporter of law enforcement, he has not foresworn race-baiting regarding the police. His campaign literature claims that the “NYPD continues to be plagued by incidents of bias and brutality” and that “systemic bias” is “entrenched” in the department. The reason for this alleged bias, in Adams’s view, is that “about half of the force is white.” The only way to eradicate this systemic bias is to “add as much diversity to the NYPD as fast as we can.” In other words: white officers, bad; officers of color, good.

There is no evidence that white officers are more likely to use excessive force than black and Hispanic officers, however; in fact, some studies show the opposite. And if “about half of the force is white,” that means that about half the force is nonwhite, a high proportion compared with other departments. Adams’s remedy for the deplorable whiteness of the NYPD—“adding Black and Brown officers who will respect and protect New Yorkers”—is hardly a novel idea. The NYPD recruits minorities relentlessly and has done so for decades. Putting an even greater emphasis on racial quotas will only water down entry standards further.

Adams’s other solution for the NYPD’s “systemic bias” is to appoint the “city’s first woman police commissioner.” He is thus eliminating 83 percent of available talent from consideration, assuming he promotes from within. Such an artificially narrow search could in theory result in the best possible candidate, but the odds are against it.

Adams does not confine his race-mongering to police matters. He even accused the New York Times of racism for reporting on his apparent violations of campaign-finance laws. “Black candidates for office are often held to a higher, unfair standard—especially those from lower-income backgrounds such as myself,” he complained in a statement.

Adams’s supporters have seized on his intention to reconstitute at least some part of the undercover anti-crime unit as evidence of his support for law and order. (Police commissioner Dermot Shea disbanded the unit in June 2020 in response to the city’s race riots.) No other candidate has offered a like proposal. Recreating the unit would be a solid start to combating rising gun violence, assuming that Adams stands up to the inevitable opposition.

In an aggressively anti-law-enforcement mayoral field, Adams is one of the only candidates speaking reasonably about crime. Like his minority-recruitment plan, however, many of his alleged innovations merely recycle what the NYPD has been doing since the mid-1990s. He wants to “deal with crime spikes before they get out of control.” That is the essence of CompStat policing: the rapid identification of, and response to, emerging crime patterns. He wants to “reinvent the anti-crime unit as an anti-gun unit.” But the anti-crime unit was an anti-gun unit. He wants to shift officers from “low-crime areas to crime hot-spots when surges occur.” The NYPD redeploys to crime hot spots every summer. He wants to be “laser-focused on violent crime—especially guns.” But that laser focus on violent crime is the mantra of progressive reformers as well. Those reformers call for an exclusive focus on violent crime, as opposed to low-level public-order enforcement, which they oppose as racially discriminatory.

Adams says nothing about such public-order enforcement, otherwise known as Broken Windows policing. Broken Windows enforcement has been radically dialed back under Bill De Blasio’s mayoralty. The resulting increase in public disorder is driving New Yorkers out of the city. Restoring quality-of-life policing would do more to fight the growing anarchy than anything else the NYPD could do.

Broken Windows policing has been discredited and discarded—as with every other unwinding of the criminal-justice system over the last decade—because it has a disparate impact on minorities. But there is no law enforcement practice that does not have a disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics, because the vast majority of street crime is committed by blacks and Hispanics—against a vast majority of black and Hispanic victims.

Standing up to the disparate-impact charge will be the prerequisite to reversing New York’s descent into lawlessness. Would a Mayor Adams do so? His record of racial demagoguery suggests not. A former high-ranking official warns that it is a “big threat to put someone that dishonest in that position of power.” Adams lacks the gravitas for the job, the official says, arguing that Andrew Yang, a “smart guy,” is the least harmful of the Democratic field.

Perhaps, however, Adams has turned a corner. The desperate desire of New Yorkers to believe that he has done so is understandable and may prove justified. “Adams is at least saying some good things,” says the newly retired captain. “If I did not know his history, I would probably say he is the best of the worst.” The question for voters is: has Adams transcended that history? In a tragic indictment of New York’s present political culture, many New Yorkers feel that they have no choice but to find out.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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