While New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, has been defending his veganism and equating drug dependency to liking cheese, he has been escalating the city’s police powers, deeply concerning civil rights advocates.
Adams, the second Black person to serve as New York mayor, largely won the mayorship through securing the votes of Black, brown and working-class New Yorkers.
Crime was an important issue in the election (and since then), and Adams’s politically moderate solutions to crime, with an emphasis on critiquing the flawed New York police department but without campaigning on defunding or switching some funds away, swayed voters.
But despite garnering support from top Democrats such as Joe Biden and New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, Adams’s vast expansion of controversial policing tactics and calls for deep cuts to New York’s affordable housing and homelessness services have left many anxious about his impact on the very coalitions that elected him.
“Mayor Adams is basically reigniting some of the worst parts of the NYPD, which is saying a lot,” said Jerome Greco, the digital forensics supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society.
Amid calls to ban drill music (an initiative Adams has since walked back) and billboards calling for the end of sagging pants style, Adams has reinstated New York’s infamous plainclothes unit, an anti-crime squad of officers dressed in civilian clothing and tasked with targeting violent crime.
Adams, who published a blueprint to end gun crime last month, promoted the plainclothes unit as a means to aggressively target gun crime, but Adams’s reinstatement of the units via newly minted “neighborhood safety” teams has been met with criticism given their legacy of violence.
Before being disbanded by the then NYPD commissioner, Dermot Shea, in 2020, New York’s anti-crime units had a long history of misconduct and excessive, targeted policing against minority communities, said Greco and Michael Sisitzky, senior policy counsel at New York Civil Liberties Union.
Many of the recruited officers on the selective units had lengthy histories of misconduct and aggression against residents, said Sisitzky.
Plainclothes unit officers were also involved in a shocking and disproportionately large number of killings, with a study by the Intercept finding that in 2018, plainclothes officers were involved in 31% of fatal police shootings despite accounting for just 6% of the force.
For many, a searing argument for disbanding the units was the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. After claiming that Diallo fit the description of a wanted rapist, officers shot at him 41 times, claiming later that he had been reaching for a gun. Diallo, who was actually reaching for a wallet, was struck 19 times and killed. All involved officers were acquitted.
But since then, plainclothes officers have been involved in other high-profile killings. Eric Garner, whose 2014 death made international headlines and sparked worldwide protests against police brutality, was killed by NYPD plainclothes officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in a banned chokehold.
In 2018, anti-crime officers also killed Saheed Vassell, 34, who neighbors say was known to local patrol officers as having mental health problems.
“This is the legacy that could be revived with these new so-called Neighborhood Safety teams,” said Sisitzky.
While Adams and the newly minted NYPD commissioner, Keechant Sewell, have promised that officers in the reinstated units would be vetted this time around for “emotional intelligence”, experts say past training has failed to yield reform.
“The plainclothes units were disbanded for a good reason and to bring them back as if those problems never existed or that somehow he’s going to be able to prevent those problems is unrealistic,” said Greco.
Adams also pledged to increase the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) to identify culprits of crime despite widespread pushback over the technology’s efficacy and use by police.
While posited as a tool to solve serious crime, critics have argued that such technology, in addition to being disproportionately used on New York’s minorities, is inaccurate.
More FRT is placed in non-white areas of New York, despite the technology being notoriously inaccurate at identifying Black and Asian people.
So far, all noted false arrests stemming from inaccurate FRT have been of Black men, and Sisitzky has warned that an expansion of the technology could lead police to confront civilians on the basis of false information.
“We’re talking about the potential for life-changing or life-ending consequences,” he said.
The NYPD, as noted in the blistering 2019 report Garbage in, Garbage Out,published by privacy lawyer and senior associate with the center on privacy & technology at Georgetown Law Clare Garvie, will also sometimes doctor poor-quality photos captured by FRT or submit celebrity photos, artist sketches, and other images into the technology to garner suspect matches. There are no rules of what images officers are allowed to use.
Use of FRT by the NYPD (which would be responsible for rolling out the technology’s expansion) over the past decade has also prompted at least six lawsuits, reported Politico, mainly over the NYPD’s disclosure of their FRT practices.
The NYPD has claimed that facial recognition has helped solve a number of serious crimes, reporting that FRT led to 2,878 arrests between October 2011 and 2018 out of 3,817 searches, but experts have argued that such stats do not disclose if matches were made on the basis of photo editing or using reference images.
Attempts to mandate public reporting from the NYPD about FRT have also been ineffective, said Greco and Sisitzky. Sistzky said that even under New York’s June 2020 Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, the NYPD failed to be fully transparent, minimally addressing concerns about inaccuracy in the technology, what outside entities had access to FRT information, and other critical information, prompting many advocates to call for a ban.
“It’s gotten to the point where we just don’t think there is a responsible way for the NYPD to use it,” said Sisitzky.
Given Adams’s promises to fight crime, progressives and activists on the left remain skeptical of the mayor’s chosen methods, especially given the proposed reduction of money to New York’s housing services. A total of $615m has been cut from homelessness services despite ballooning levels of homelessness and a campaign promise to fund the department with $4bn. While much of the budget reductions are due to reduced federal Covid-19 aid, advocates said they will challenge budget reductions as New York’s homeless crisis rises.
As the social aftereffects of the Covid pandemic, especially factors such as soaring rent prices and record overdose rates, become increasingly clear, critics have warned that only a serious investment in social services and rethinking of police-centered community intervention methods can address crime rates while protecting vulnerable communities.
“If they really were serious about dealing with these issues, they would better fund the social services and utilities that people need and help them in ways that truly would lower any crime and actually be beneficial,” said Greco.
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