Retired NYPD captain-turned-mayor Eric Adams handed in his gun and badge 15 years ago. But he never fully left the job.
During his first month as mayor of the nation’s largest city, Adams — often clad in an NYPD jacket — has routinely rushed to crime scenes like the beat cop he once was.
Adams began his first day in office on Jan. 1 with a 911 call to report a street fight he witnessed on his commute to the office, accompanied by TV cameras but no security detail.
“I have an assault in progress,” he flatly told the 911 operator. “Three males.” He ended the call by giving his name: “Adams. Mayor Adams.”
Later that day, the Democrat delivered his first speech to New Yorkers and then bounded out of City Hall for an unscheduled press conference at a Manhattan hospital where a police officer was being treated for a gunshot wound.
It was just a sign of what would follow during his first month in office. The events of recent weeks have already turned crime — and the question of what to do about it — into the single biggest issue facing his administration and has drawn in President Joe Biden, who will visit New York next week to discuss gun violence with Adams.
The incidents and Adams’ response are also stirring up fears that some criminal justice reforms of the past decade could soon unravel.
It was inevitable that the new mayor would be focused on policing. He made combating crime a cornerstone of his campaign last year, winning over moderate Democrats by addressing the wave of violence the pandemic seemed to be bringing. But it’s been a series of high-profile and deadly incidents this year that have grabbed headlines and given momentum to Adams’ policy platform.
By Jan. 14, Adams seemed to be consumed by the issue as he headed to police headquarters to announce the arrest of an armed robber who fatally shot a 19-year-old Burger King cashier. Four days later, he spoke at the vigil of a woman who was shoved to her death in front of a Times Square subway train in a random attack. And just 24 hours after that vigil, Adams attended a late-night briefing in the Bronx after an infant was struck in the face with a stray bullet.
“Doesn’t matter to me if it’s a police officer shot, or if it’s a baby shot. I’m going to stay in these streets until this city is safe,” the mayor vowed, days before two police officers were shot and killed this past weekend.
The former 22-year NYPD veteran has likened himself to a “general” tackling the city’s crime wave head-on — an approach that supporters say is critical to showing the public he’ll make good on his campaign mantra that the “prerequisite to prosperity is public safety.”
But detractors fear his tough-on-crime persona and pro-police policies are a sign that years of hard-won reforms starting in 2013 when Michael Bloomberg was the mayor are at risk of being reversed. That year a landmark ruling found the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk was unconstitutional. Now, nearly two years after the murder of George Floyd forced a national reckoning on race and policing, the city is talking about putting more officers on the streets, protecting the police department from budget cuts and possibly even reinstating a legal version of stop and frisk.
Some say New Yorkers elected Adams because they trust that his background will enable him to achieve the challenging balance between justice and safety.
“He has a unique position where he’s lived it. So he’s not going to be brought up to speed by police chiefs, nor is he going to be lectured by advocates,” Republican City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli said in an interview. “And I think that’s what made him a popular choice for a large segment of New Yorkers.”
One of the mayor’s most controversial plans is his decision to revive the NYPD’s plainclothes unit that was disbanded by former Mayor Bill deBlasio after the division was implicated in multiple police-involved shootings and the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner.
This week, Adams delivered a major speech outlining his plan to combat gun violence, days after two NYPD officers were fatally shot in Harlem. One officer died on Friday, and the second officer died Tuesday. They were the fourth and fifth cops shot this month.
Adams has pledged to improve the plainclothes unit by hiring better-trained cops, but he says deBlasio was mistaken to dismantle the division, whose mission was to take illegal guns off city streets.
“One shooting is too many. Don’t get me wrong, this is a crisis, and we have to address it. But this has been historically the most violent of police units,” said City Council Member Tiffany Cabán, a progressive Democrat, casting doubt on Adams’claims that his plainclothes cops could avoid the abuses of the past. “We always see a call for increased training, and there is zero empirical evidence that any form of increased training reduces the violence.”
The one aspect of the blueprint that Cabán and other criminal justice reform advocates applaud is an expansion of summer jobs for youth and stepping up community-based “cure violence” programs.
But they disagree with other major elements, like Adams’ plan to rollback aspects of the bail reforms passed in New York in 2019. He argues that judges should be able to keep defendants in jail before trial if they believe they are dangerous. And he is pushing to be able to charge 16- and 17-year- olds caught with guns as adults in some circumstances. Both changes would require state legislation.
Police Benevolent Association president, Pat Lynch, welcomed the platform.
“Mayor Adams has acknowledged the problem and outlined the beginnings of a plan. Now that police officers and crime victims have an advocate in City Hall, the real work begins,” Lynch, whose union represents 24,000 rank-and-file NYPD officers, said after Adams’ crime speech on Monday.
Another ally, Democratic Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, said Adams was sending an important message to New Yorkers by crisscrossing the city to attend vigils, visiting hospitals and giving after-dark briefings at the scenes of shootings.
“Showing up is a critical part of the job,” Richards said. “It signals to folks that this is a mayor who’s not going to tolerate the Wild Wild West in our city.”
As a former cop, Richards said Adams might have more success than his predecessor exerting pressure on the NYPD, particularly deBlasio.
“People in the police department would say [of deBlasio], ‘The guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. ’ It’s hard to say that when you have a guy who served for 22 years in the department and frankly worked to hold the department accountable as well.”