Plainclothes officers have been involved in some of New York’s most infamous cases of police violence, and have been accused of racial profiling
New York City mayor Eric Adams is planning to reinstate a controversial plainclothes police unit that’s been accused of racial profiling and brutal tactics, as a spate of recent high-profile shootings has shocked the city.
“We will not surrender our city to the violent few,” Mr Adams, a former New York Police Department (NYPD) officer, said on Monday as part of a newly announced slate of policies to combat gun violence. “I want to be clear: This is not just a plan for the future — it is a plan for right now … gun violence is a public health crisis. There is no time to wait.”
The move comes after a pair of shocking shootings: an 11-month-old girl hit by a stray bullet in the Bronx, and two officers who were shot on Friday while responding to a domestic call in Harlem, leaving one dead and another critically injured.
The plan would see hundreds of officers assigned to teams across the city over the next three weeks, deploying to the 30 precincts where the mayor’s team estimates 80 per cent of violent crime occurs.
Officers in the so-called Neighborhood Safety Teams would remain in plainclothes though still be identifiable by some manner as police officers, and would carry body cameras, according to the mayor’s office.
The NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime unit was disbanded in 2020, as weeks of Black Lives Matter protests captivated the city.
“This is 21st-century policing,” then-police commissioner Dermot Shea said of his move to dissolve the units, which have been accused of unconstitutional and violent treatment of communities of colour. “The key difference — we must do it in a manner that builds trust between the officers and the community they serve.”
The unit was criticised as a vestige of New York’s “stop and frisk” era of policing, where officers would stop and search individuals on the street without a warrant. The practice, found unconstitutional in federal court in 2013, overwhelmingly singled out Black and Latinx New Yorkers for suspicion.
“The anti-crime unit was primarily tasked with doing these stops. And they would do them violently,” Jenn Borchetta, a managing director at the legal non-profit Bronx Defenders, told NPR. “They would throw people against walls. I mean, we have one client who is 13 years old who was thrown against the hood of a car. Just for crossing the street.”
Plainclothes officers were involved in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who in 1999 was shot 41 times as he reached for his wallet, which officers believed was a gun. In 2018, anti-crime unit police shot and killed Saheed Vassell, a mentally ill man known to members of his Brooklyn community, but unknown to the officers who encountered him holding a pipe like a gun.
A 2018 review by The Intercept found that plainclothes officers were involved in 31 per cent of fatal police shootings since 2000.
In addition to more aggressive enforcement, the mayor has proposed expanded summer employment and youth engagement programmes, as a way to reach the estimated 250,000 young people aged 16 to 24 in New York who are neither in school or employed and are vulnerable to engaging in illegal activity.
He also called for state lawmakers to expand the use of pre-trial detention of violent crime suspects, and to allow for teenagers accused of violent crime to be tried in regular criminal court.
Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate and a candidate for governor, called for more resources to community health and intervention resources, rather than tougher policing.
“We can build safer, stronger communities without relying on strategies which in the past have inflicted lasting harm,” Mr Williams said on Monday. “This is not a time to lose the lessons that we have learned.”
Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg has also vowed to prosecute gun violations more aggressively, after previous campaign promises to focus on those gun infractions that involved actually committing violent crime, rather than possession.
Crime has indeed spiked in New York City during the economic and social dislocation of the pandemic years, but remains well below historic highs.
Major “index” crimes are down 11 per cent since 2013, and nearly 50 per cent since 2000, according to an NYPD from December.
Still, Mr Adams ran on his public safety bona fides, and the present fear of crime among some in the city will be an early test of his priorities and effectiveness. The pandemic crime spike has caused some of the biggest jumps in crime levels in the last five years, including the most murders in nearly a decade.
The New York mayor isn’t the only one faced with a test of public safety policy.
On Monday, the White House defended its own record on the subject, amid questions about how Joe Biden was responding to the largest surge in murders in six decades, bringing homicides back towards historic peaks in the mid-1990s.
“It is absolutely true that [President Biden] will not be satisfied or complacent when officers are being gunned down or when Americans have to worry about whether they can safely ride the subway or bus,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. “That should not be a political issue.”