Politics

Why NYC Might Elect a Former Cop as Mayor

One year after the anti–police brutality protests.

Eric Adams fist-bumps a supporter while standing and smiling in a room.
Brooklyn borough president and New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams appears in Flushing, Queens, on Wednesday. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Eric Adams has consistently polled at or around the top of the heap of people running in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor—and the Democratic primary is widely considered the determinant of who wins the mayor’s office this fall. Adams was an officer in the NYPD for more than 20 years, and he has centered that experience during his campaign. Standing with the police is not an obvious way to win a Democratic primary right now, especially since the debate over police brutality has been going on a long time in this city. But violent crime is up in New York, people who study this kind of thing are finding it hard to explain why, and public safety is now on people’s minds. Does Adams’ polling success posit a different direction for the same city that saw massive protests against police violence just last summer? To find out, I spoke with Eric Lach, a New Yorker staff writer who’s been covering the mayoral race, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity

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Mary Wilson: Can you give us the highlights of Eric Adams’ trajectory in New York City, law enforcement, and politics? One of the starter points of his story is that as a kid, he was a victim of police brutality, and then he went on to become a cop himself.

Eric Lach: Eric Adams is like an outer-boroughs son of New York who, at age 15, was beaten in the basement of police precinct house. A few years later, at the urging of a mentor, he joins the police in order to advocate for change from within, and gets involved in speaking out against police abuse. Another interesting aspect with Adams is that the touchstones of police abuse and brutality and violence for him are a previous generation’s, with Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima in the 1990s—Diallo had been killed by police, and Louima was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by officers. He’s calling back to an earlier era of names that were invoked in order to try to push for reforms and change within the police department.

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If you watched local news in New York City in the 1990s, Adams was somebody who was in the news and had a media presence. All along, he’s sort of eyeing a political career. He went to a guy named Bill Lynch, a notable political figure in the city in the ’80s and ’90s, and was like, how do I become mayor? Lynch basically said, rise the ranks of the police department, run for office, then become a borough president. So Adams checked everything else off on the list. He retired as a captain from the police department. Then he was elected to the state Senate, representing a district in Brooklyn, and subsequently elected Brooklyn borough president, which is—

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It’s kind of ceremonial.

At this point, borough presidents are boosters for the city and have only a little bit of a hand in some of the municipal decisions. But he’s checking these boxes on a list that was given to him, and this year, he is trying to fulfill that that goal.

Did he launch his campaign as the public safety candidate, or is he making use of concerns about rising crime?

When he launched his campaign, we were coming out of like the George Floyd protests, so he would have been crazy to project himself public safety candidate. So he took a couple of different tacks along the way. Among other things, he’s a strict vegan. He was diagnosed with diabetes a number of years ago—he was half blind, was sort of obese, and had a lot of health problems. After getting the diagnosis, he started cooking all his own food and subscribing to a strict vegan diet.

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Adams is also big into meditation and mindfulness in general, even in terms of incorporating that into policy.

I think at the beginning he was sort of flirting with being the public health candidate in a pandemic: healthiness, school lunch, nutrition for kids. As the pandemic sort of receded in New York and the news came to be more dominated by the spike in shootings and reports of crime on the subway and hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the city, Adams really leaned into his record and thought of this is as a public safety election, which is not unusual in New York City. Lots of mayoral elections historically have turned on issues of crime and public safety and the balance of policing and civil rights. But Adams really seized on it.

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If Adams goes on to win, I think the key moment will be his reaction to a shooting in Times Square in April, where two brothers who were CD vendors got into an argument, one pulled out a gun and started firing at his brother and missed, and then hit three passersby, a little girl in a stroller and two women who were tourists. Adams, within hours of the shooting, held a press conference in Times Square to talk about it, to talk about the spike in shootings and what was going on. He was like, if you want to make this campaign about public safety, I am all-in. I think he saw it clearly when this stuff started to bubble up in the news: If this became a campaign about crime, Adams was going to be very well-positioned.

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From what I’ve read and seen, Adams’ pitch is that New York can have policing that is proactive and also ethical. I think the way he puts it is you don’t have to choose between public safety and justice. I’m curious if his policies are different from those of his opponents or if he’s standing apart, mostly because that’s the message he’s homed in on and that’s what he chooses to emphasize.

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I mean, he’s definitely rejected all arguments about cutting police budgets. There’s really one candidate left in the very large Democratic primary field who still embraces the language of the “defund the police” movement, but other candidates like Maya Wiley and Scott Stringer have called for cuts to the police budget. Eric Adams is not here for that. On police reform, Adams has various proposals that I think are interesting and serious. He’s very much like, I’m in a dialogue and debate with reformers, but I’m not against reform. But the vision of policing that Adams has is a smiling cop on every corner, at the top step of every subway station saying “hello” to every passerby people smiling back and saying, “Thanks so much, officer.” It’s like blanketing the city with happy, proactive cops, which to me is in some ways more difficult to imagine than the idea of doing away with policing entirely. He thinks policing is a is a good job, that it provides tens of thousands of middle-class jobs, increasingly for Black and brown New Yorkers.

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The vision Adams has for NY policing was also influenced by his former role as an operative. Adams was a computer programmer with the police at the very moment the department was starting to use data to drive its approach. The shorthand for this is CompStat. It spread across the country, but it was pioneered by the NYPD.

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The simplest way to put it, I think, is that it’s the application of data to policing. But the department would have these meetings where all the lower-down officials have to present their stats to the higher-ups. And they get grilled: “There’s been a spate of robberies on this street. What are you doing about that?” “You’ve got three murders in this district in the past month. What’s happening here?” It’s using the numbers to make arguments about the deployment of resources. Adams has a front-row seat to this work—this is debated, but CompStat ends up getting credited with having a hand in the city going from thousands of murders a year and high crime rates to becoming the safest big city in the country in in a relatively short order. Adams has this as part of his pitches: I was there. I was in the room. This was amazing. When this happened, nobody thought that this was going to work. And then it did. There are still debates about how it worked and how much credit policing should get for the crime drop.

The problem with CompStat is that numbers don’t show the whole picture.

By going numbers first, you’re creating a context for police to act like the numbers are the end-all, be-all: You need to raise numbers, and you need to look like you’re doing something. And stop and frisk became an easy way to look like you’re doing something because you can stop anybody on the street for any reason.

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