New York Mayor Eric Adams’s new anti-crime unit, which will debut in a week or so, will be tasked with going after gun-related crimes as homicides and shootings climb in the city.
Policing experts say that because the unit will deal with armed suspects most of the time, its members will have a higher chance of being involved in shootings. They say that if that happens and political pressure builds to detract from or dismantle the unit, Adams must stand behind the unit’s crime-fighting mission and not fall back.
“As violent crime skyrockets, you have to unhandcuff the police, let the police do their job, and let them know that if something happens—inevitably, there is going to be something controversial that is going to happen—politicians have their back,” John Eterno, criminal justice professor at Molloy College, told The Epoch Times.
Political Courage Needed
Because anti-crime unit officers are supposed to aggressively go after suspects in possession of illegal guns, they’re more likely to get complaints or be involved in shootings, according to Eterno.
“As a leader, you may get some people angry with you, and that’s okay if you’re taking the higher principle—whether Adams has the political courage to do that remains to be seen,” he said.
Eterno has been critical of policing strategies by the two previous New York mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio.
Bloomberg was so focused on crime control that his policies violated New Yorkers’ rights, according to Eterno. De Blasio was so focused on protecting rights that his policies led to rising crime.
De Blasio disbanded the decades-old anti-crime unit at the New York Police Department (NYPD) in August 2020, when demand for police reform rose following the death of George Floyd. The unit had long been accused of being responsible for a disproportionately high number of shootings. Since the unit’s disbandment, violent crime has been on the rise.
In 2021, Adams campaigned on taking the middle ground in policing, a central issue in the mayoral race.
As a former black captain in the NYPD who had been vocal for years about police misconduct in minority communities, Adams has vowed to bring down crime while protecting individual rights.
Officers in the new anti-crime unit will wear body cameras, go through additional training on police tactics and conflict resolution, and have more supervision.
“He is trying to do this balancing act, and it is very, very difficult. That’s the hard part, where you cannot just go from one extreme to the other. You got to be aggressive, but not too aggressive,” Eterno said.
It’s a hard job to take illegal guns off the streets, and the job becomes even harder when officers don’t have political support behind them, according to Joe Giacalone, a former NYPD homicide detective who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
If police officers feel that they don’t have political backup, they’ll be less proactive on duty, or they may not even want to volunteer to get on the job, Giacalone said.
Too Many Guns
“When you are dealing with people who are carrying illegal firearms, the chance of having a violent encounter is greatly increased,” Giacalone said. “If there is a shooting, or there is a violent encounter, how is the mayor going to handle [it]? That becomes the No. 1 question.
“Many people are just waiting for one incident to say, ‘Okay, that is it. Let us stop it again.’”
The old anti-crime unit was known for taking illegal guns off the streets.
A former NYPD homicide detective, Alfred Titus remembered suspects telling him during interrogations that they no longer carried guns on the streets because they were very likely to get caught.
“So when that individual got into a conflict with someone in the street, he didn’t have a gun on him, and there would not be a shooting or murder,” he said. “Today, many more people have guns on them. When they have an argument with somebody, they pull out a gun and shoot.”
Titus, who works as an adjunct professor at John Jay College, said Adams’s plan is to bring controversial policing strategies such as the anti-crime unit back, monitor them very closely, and remove officers who can’t follow department policies or the law.
One of the key changes that Adams made to the new anti-crime unit is that officers will no longer be in plainclothes; instead, they’ll dress in a way so people can identify them as police officers. Eterno thinks that takes an important tool away from officers. Before its disbandment, anti-crime unit officers were in plainclothes, mingled with people in the neighborhood, and caught criminals in action.
“When a cop in uniform is standing on the corner, people with an illegal gun are not going to take their gun out and show it to their friend, ‘Look, I got a gun,’” Eterno said.
Keith Ross, a former NYPD officer and an adjunct professor at John Jay College, thinks one of the reasons that plainclothes became a controversial tactic is that it was used in the wrong way during Bloomberg’s term.
Under Bloomberg, the NYPD got into a practice of measuring officer performance almost solely through the number of stops and frisks, summons, citations, and arrests they made, according to Ross. Since the anti-crime unit and other plainclothes unit officers didn’t answer 911 calls and were focused on detecting crime and making arrests, the performance pressure on them was especially high.
“Say in November, we did five stops and got four guns off the street. In December, we did four stops and got two guns off the street. In January, we did three stops and one gun. This month, we did two stops and got zero guns off the street,” he said. “Now, one way of thinking about this is that we have been doing our jobs so well that there are less guns on the street.
“But another way to look at this—which could be argued statistically—is that you and I are working less, which was the police culture at one time.”
To ramp up their numbers, some plainclothes officers began to stop people without having reasonable suspicion to do so, which led to more civilian complaints. Some officers went out of their domain to hunt down minor offenses, according to Ross.
“Maybe one unit brings in four felony arrests and another unit brings in four nonviolent misdemeanors, but on paper, they both did four arrests,” he said.
Such was the police culture that partially led to police encounters that drew national attention, including the death of Eric Garner, according to Ross. The Garner incident was often cited by activists to push for an end to the anti-crime unit.
In July 2014, anti-crime unit officer Daniel Pantaleo and several other officers approached Garner on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps. In an attempt to arrest Garner, Pantaleo put him in a chokehold. Garner died during the encounter.
“Why were plainclothes units deployed there looking for untaxed cigarettes?” Ross said. “That was the reason that started that whole incident. I’m not making a value judgment, just stating a fact pattern.”
He agrees that getting rid of plainclothes officers makes anti-crime officers’ jobs more difficult. But he had faith that officers will figure out ways to do their jobs even with impediments in the way, just like what he and his partner did when they were plainclothes officers in the early 2000s.
At that time, they were assigned to a housing development in Queens to target crimes such as narcotics and prostitution. After several arrests, criminals in that area could easily recognize their car, even though it was unmarked. some people recognized their faces as well.
So Ross and his partner would park their cars a few more blocks away, get into an unoccupied apartment through a cooperating landlord, and continue to do surveillance from there. They changed locations from time to time and never used the same apartment for too long.
“That is what police are good at—adapt and overcome,” he said.