Jurisprudence

Eric Adams vs. the NYPD

Adams wears an NYPD jacket as he stands among NYPD officials and speaks at a mic
New York City Mayor Eric Adams at a press conference on Friday. Reuters/Dieu-Nalio Chery

Mayor Eric Adams provides New Yorkers with the best chance in well over 50 years to make real changes to the ways the New York Police Department operates, both on the streets and in its disciplinary processes. He has ample plans, but does he have the will?

The city’s mayors have frequently vowed to reform policing, but usually failed to secure many accomplishments. Most recently, Bill de Blasio came into office in 2014 committed to rolling back the aggressive policing that Michael Bloomberg had championed, especially the zealous use of stop and frisk.

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However, by the end of de Blasio’s first year in office, the NYPD’s rank-and-file had turned on him, figuratively and literally, with thousands showing him their backs at the funerals for two murdered officers. Pat Lynch, president of the officers’ union, the Police Benevolent Association, accused de Blasio of contributing to their deaths by supporting protests against the police killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

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Adams is the first mayor since 1950 who is a former police officer. He has positioned himself as the ultimate insider, a policeman whose origin story begins with a cruel station house beating, which led him to want to change the department’s racist, violent culture from within. Adams’ experience, while shocking, was not uncommon. As I illustrate in my new book, The Harlem Uprising: Segregation and Inequality in Postwar New York City, the NYPD has a long history of indiscriminate violence, particularly against men of color.

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Adams did this work in a very public way for over a decade, criticizing Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg and the PBA, as well as conducting workshops on how young Black men should behave during encounters with NYPD officers. While Brooklyn Borough president, he even came to de Blasio’s defense during the 2014 controversy and has remained steadfast in his assessment that the police treat Black and brown people as suspects by default.

Despite this, the PBA viewed candidate Adams as an acceptable choice during the Democratic primary season. The PBA represents 24,000 of the city’s 35,000 uniformed police officers. It is politically powerful and has been since the 1960s, when it organized and won a referendum permanently removing civilians from any role overseeing the police in any way.

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Since then, the PBA has gone to war with many mayors, including Giuliani and Bloomberg, and has been utterly unwilling to tolerate criticism, reform, and above all any measure of increased accountability. In the mid-1990s, it was lobbying Albany to pass a bill removing the police commissioner’s ability to fire officers.

Pat Lynch and his leadership team—still overwhelmingly white and male even though the force is less than half white and about 20 percent female—are determined combatants who know how to fight and win. They’ve been doing it for decades.

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Adams’ only experience with the PBA seems to be as foe. He began his career with the New York City Transit Police, which had its own unions. By the time Giuliani merged the transit and housing police into the NYPD in 1995, Adams was a sergeant, represented by the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a union also fond of controversy.

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Appointing reformers at the highest ranks is no easy fix. The rank-and-file are quick to turn on departmental leaders they feel are not supporting them 100 percent, a dynamic that has endured for decades. Commissioners and their chosen executives run the department in name, but the PBA and SBA significantly constrain their abilities.

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The PBA has several tactics it deploys to great effect. It has an enormous amount of money it eagerly spends on lobbying, political donations, and attack ads. Another is Lynch himself, unafraid to engage in dire hyperbole, often menacing the public with the specter of a lawless tomorrow should policing change in any way. Finally, it wields the threat of a work slowdown, a promise it has fulfilled several times, designed to coerce city leaders into compliance.

The steps Adams will need to take, such as shifting the burden of civil financial judgments to individual officers who violate people’s rights, will elicit rancorous conflict and bitter invective. But does anyone really think taxpayers should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to settle suits against violent, lawless officers who are rarely disciplined, let alone fired? The mayor must decide what matters and what he is willing to do to provide effective and ethical policing, which he insists are not mutually exclusive goals.

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