Last week, news about New York City’s supposed return to Broken Windows policing – perhaps the most consequential mantra in modern policing – dominated the headlines. Mayor Eric Adams and his police commissioner announced a new quality-of-life crackdown in some neighborhoods to focus on offenses like public urination, dice games and marijiuana sales.
News of the policing plans came a month after Adams had similarly called for more police enforcement against the city’s homeless in the subways, including forcing them out of the public transit system. They come a week after Adams complained about farebeating, one of the most nefarious “offenses” in the Broken Windows universe. And all of this comes after weeks of debate about the Mayor’s plan to roll out a new (sort of) uniformed unit in unmarked cars that will do a lot of what the notorious NYPD Anti-Crime units had done before the unit was phased out amid the George Floyd protests.
If some of this rings a bell it’s because all are hallmarks of past policing policies. Plainclothes units, like the Anti-Crime and Street Crimes Unit, have long targeted, and sometimes murdered, New Yorkers of color. Broken Windows policing – the philosophy that suggests aggressive police enforcement of low-level offenses lowers more serious violent crimes – was popularized in the 1990’s under then-mayor Rudy Giuliani (last seen with hair dye running down his face as he defended Donald Trump) and two-time commissioner Bill Bratton.
Bratton, who praised Adams’ election as “good news,” oversaw the department from 2014 to 2016 as ending Broken Windows became a core focus of Black Lives Matter protests in the city. Eric Garner, the Black Staten Island man who was choked to death by police in 2014, had been a constant target of police for his supposed Broken Windows offenses of selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes. After years of rallying and protests, the number of arrests for these low-level offenses declined sharply. Overall crime also declined during that span up until the COVID pandemic.
Without getting too deep into the weeds on Broken Windows (there is more than enough literature disproving its crime fighting claims and exposing its racist ideology and harms), the fact is that the policing philosophy has never fully receded. Just at the beginning of this month, before the announcement, the NYPD made 143 arrests and handed out more than 1,500 summonses for fare evasion in just the first week of a prior Adams crackdown. The NYPD also recently testified about hundreds of citations in the subway for things like taking up more than one subway seat.
Still, even just the rhetorical turn to a policing theory developed by a couple of conservative white theorists and operationalized by Giuliani and Bratton casts further light on Adams, who, as the city’s second Black mayor, espouses tough on crime platitudes as the city comes out of the pandemic. But Adams emerging as perhaps the country’s preeminent Blue Lives Matter mayor shouldn’t surprise anyone.
On the campaign trail to become New York City’s 110th Mayor, Adams’ past political party affiliation became a passing criticism of the former NYPD captain. Adams had changed party affiliation from Democrat to Republican from 1995 to 2002 while he rose through the ranks of the police department. In a 1999 New York Times profile about the then-NYPD lieutenant, Adams himself even went as far as described himself as a “conservative Republican.”
Nevertheless, Adams, who entered politics as a State Senator in Brooklyn, has often tried to prop up his police reform bonafides as reason to see him as leveled and responding to a need for balance between crime-fighting and civil rights. In the NYPD, he and others formed the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and was an internal critic of the department’s handling of the killing of Amadou Diallo in the 90’s (although he defended the officers who actually killed Diallo as “scapegoats”).
However, it is important to note that while he was critical of an obvious incident of police brutality, he cut his teeth during Giuliani and Bratton’s rollout of zero-tolerance policing. In fact, if you listen to Adams carefully, he is a self-admitted supporter of the Broken Windows as “good policing practice” and defender of Stop and Frisk, the controversial tactic favored by Giuliani’s successor, Michael Bloomberg. He has only ever been critical of either approach’s “abuse” – which is classic double talk from politicians who cannot articulate or distinguish that from its real world effects.
So not only is Adams a cop who rose to a position of leadership in the department during a time when arrests of mostly Black and brown New Yorkers exploded, he has also been a politician for the last two decades – a combination that invites a very real and very dangerous melding of authoritarianism and narcissism. During his first three months as mayor, Adams has already been leaving clues as to his leadership style, constantly wearing NYPD hats ands jackets around the city and admonishing voices from the left – not unlike Giuliani famously did as mayor on his weekly radio talk show.
Adams has also been adept at pointing to increases in crime, which are true enough in the sense that some crime categories have risen in the past two plus years, but without taking on the most reasonable explanation for it: the socio-economic destabilization of society wrought by the pandemic. His fundamental belief that we should police the shit out of the social order of the city is coupled with faint lip service to the notion that we shouldn’t go “too far,” or that there should be a few more community anti-violence workers sprinkled into the equation.
But what would appear like textbook political moderatism from a Democrat – a party whose leadership not only viciously opposes reducing police budgets, but proudly proposes to enhance them – doesn’t tell the whole story. Adams also appears to simply be echoing rhetoric and policy from the city’s past.
On Sunday, the New York Post reported that Adams told an audience at a gathering of an NYPD Catholic group that he was a “wartime” leader: “There are wartime and peacetime generals. I’m a wartime general,” he said. “I’m not sending you to the front line and leaving you there,” he told the audience. “I’m going to be at the front line with you. I’m going to lead you into battle.”
What’s intriguing here is that Adams doesn’t simply seem to be responding to the well known conservative hysteria of tabloids like the Post – which in a January 22 column precisely called for him to be a wartime mayor: “Eric Adams needs to be NYC’s wartime mayor” – he’s also reciting language from the Giuliani era. In the documentary Giuliani Time, NYPD deputy commissioner Jack Maple (Bratton’s trusted advisor and the man credited with the COMPstat system of police management), described the advance of policing in the 1990s like “what the British did in World War 2… this is war.”
Adams’ policies also seem to be copied and pasted from Bratton-style policing from 30 years ago. Adams’ plans for sweeps of the homeless in the subways, which he has attempted to describe as “humane” because there is an offer to bring a person to a shelter (where most still don’t want to go), were not only unsuccessfully attempted by his predecessor during the peak of the pandemic, but were tried decades ago. During an interview with the right-wing quarterly City Journal in 1992, Bratton described his own homeless sweep efforts then, which also included supposed “help”:
“Of course there was an outcry from homeless advocates, but the truth is that we tried to handle the program in a way that benefited the homeless. We had four buses going around the city, and anyone who was ejected was offered transportation to a shelter. We also formed a Homeless Outreach team of 25 volunteer officers who would approach homeless men and women in the system and try to offer counseling and information about the options available to them. Those who would accept help were put in touch with the social service agencies that seemed most appropriate in the individual case.”
Adams’ propensity to bring the police hammer down isn’t only a concern for anyone who knows anything about the NYPD’s history, it is also demonstrably ineffective. His strategic efforts to point to real tragedies and victims of violence to justify policies he knows will be criticized are undermined by the fact that violence has gone up while the city puts more resources into policing than any municipality in the history of our species.
Proposing policing as the plan in 2022 is based on Adams’ ideological devotion to the profession. Where are the evidence-based plans? If you’re fighting a war, you don’t need evidence, you need soldiers.
Relatedly, what some have described as “swagger” is arrogance that leads Adams to believe you can govern a city of more than 8 million people the way you can manage a police precinct, with a top-down, do-as-I-say approach where he looks down his nose at critics or those he sees as his underlings. His recent diatribe against people filming the police are almost indistinguishable from comments Bratton made in 2016, when he called copwatching “an epidemic.”
Adams’ cop-centered beliefs aren’t the only attributes that align him with police supremacists like Bratton and law and order Republicans like Giualiani. His strongly held policing worldviews is only rivaled by his proximity and efforts to appease the city’s business community. In the 1990’s, Giualiani’s zero-tolerance policing policies went hand in hand with bread and butter conservative agendas, like cutting taxes for the wealthy and gutting social services. Adams, in an interview with a right-wing podcaster from City Journal, talked about his plans for cuts to city agencies and bemoaned past efforts to increase taxes on the real estate industry.
The question is no longer what Adams’ politics are – which some in the media have tried to portray as complex, “inside game,” not easy to pin down ideologically, and even called “radical centrism” – but rather how much damage someone who parallels Giuliani can do in the next four years. Just this weekend, reports arose that Adams is close to a deal to station drones throughout the city to fight crime after meeting with the heads of drone manufacturers based in Israel. Just this week, he directed city agencies to clear homeless encampments, including bedding and tents, during one of the coldest weeks of the month – with no concrete plans for where they would go.
Giuliani, who publicly expressed support for Adams as someone who “gives us some hope, would be proud.
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