Opinion: When a Black Cop Runs for Mayor

A future without police violence is possible. Black and brown elders and youth leaders are building towards this future every day. Yet Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a Black pro-carceral candidate running for mayor, stands in the way.

Adams is running for mayor as a proud former NYPD captain. In an even-toned voice and with a smile, he tells New Yorkers directly impacted by police violence and mass incarceration that he will not commit to the transformation they ask for. He uses his experience with racial discrimination and his history as a police officer to call for the expansion of a carceral system that is killing Black communities — a fault that many may ignore because of his identity as a Black man.

Adams advocates for maintaining the NYPD’s involvement in crises that they have historically made worse.

Photo of Eric Adams at a press conference in 2008
Adams speaking at a press conference in 2008. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

He does not want to end the NYPD’s involvement in homelessness outreach, though the police often brutalize and criminalize homeless people for drug addiction, turnstile hopping, and sleeping on the subway and other private property.

He does not support ending the use of police as responders to mental health emergencies, despite their track record of killing people who call them for help and siphoning many into jails

When asked by youth leaders if he would remove police from schools to end the school-to-prison pipeline, Adams said no

Often, Adams creates a hypothetical scenario or refers to an isolated one in which a homeless person, disabled person or student acts violently to defend the constant surveillance and policing of them. He suggests officers must remain present at all times to stop violence without acknowledging how officers are often perpetrators of violence themselves and tend to arrive after violence occurs in communities. He refers to increasing rates of gun violence without reckoning with how gun violence has increased despite the NYPD maintaining the largest police budget in the nation

Adams is not the only pro-carceral candidate in the race. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang shares many of the same positions as him. Yang would also like the NYPD to respond to mental health emergencies and crises involving homeless people. Yang supports increased police presence in Asian communities despite opposition from Asian-led community organizations like Red Canary Song. Their open letter rejecting increased policing has been co-signed by over 100 local and national community organizations. 700 Asian New Yorkers signed a letter against Yang’s candidacy itself, citing his calls for increased policing as one of the reasons why.

Yet, unlike Yang, Adams advocates for more policing as a victim of police violence. 

“When I was just 15 years old, my brother and I were beaten by NYPD officers in the basement of a precinct house. I learned the hard way, and from a young age, that you could be innocent and still be targeted with violence and discrimination based on the color of your skin,” Adams said in a Twitter thread.

As a Black woman, I sympathize with him as I am also familiar with the inside of a precinct and wrongful detention, as well as the pressing fear that weighs on one’s mind after a police encounter or witnessing another person being brutalized. 

However, while my experience drives me to avoid interactions with the police and fight for a safer world beyond them, Adams’s experience drove him to become a cop and NYPD captain for 22 years. While I am anxious to be left alone on a subway platform with cops, Adams has supported city decisions to put them there. 

The unique danger of Adams’s candidacy is that many will ignore the violence he perpetuates because he is a Black man. He fulfills liberal reformist fantasies that if the police force becomes more diverse — if perpetrators of state violence are Black rather than white — racist violence will end. 

Adams argues that the system abusing Black people can change if more Black people join it. In his 100+ Steps for NYC plan, he commits to hiring more Black and brown officers to end “bias and brutality” in policing. The immediate issue with this proposal is that the NYPD already has the largest police force in the nation, of which officers of color make up 54%

Second, Adams’s plan is based on a false notion that hiring Black cops would end biased and brutal policing. Policing itself is biased and brutal. American police originated as volunteering slave patrols, whom cities promoted to paid government employees to legalize their violence. A system created to capture and kill runaway slaves cannot be subverted by the descendants of the enslaved to protect us. 

When Black people become cops, they become participants in the systemic oppression of our communities. A ProPublica analysis of federal data on police shootings shows that while Black officers accounted for a little over 10 percent of fatal killings recorded over the span of two years, 78% of the people they killed were Black. 

Similarly, the race and gender diversity of NYC school police has not ended the criminalization of Black and Hispanic youth. Sixty-five percent of NYPD school safety agents are Black and Hispanic women. Still, Black and Latino children account for 91% of the arrests

Black people can internalize racism and become accomplices to a system that disproportionately criminalizes Black communities. While officers can exercise some discretion in who they target and how, all officers are responsible for enforcing unjust and discriminatory laws that criminalize people for poverty, drug addiction, consensual sex work, protest, self-defense and so forth. A Black officer’s sympathy for the person they arrest on a drug charge does not negate the harm of their actions.

At a City Council hearing, a youth leader demanding police-free schools expressed this much: 

“If I don’t feel okay, if I am scared, if I am about to have a mental breakdown, who is going to help me? The same people trained to mace me if I scream in fear? The same people who will pin me down if I need space? The same people trained to hit me if I feel uncomfortable being held? Our schools continue to feel more like prisons than actual schools… What makes the school to prison pipeline in New York more painful and more complex is that our people —  people who look like me — are the ones who are tasked to police us.”

Hearing this young leader’s words, I recall a time when an officer, a Black woman, patted me down at a white officer’s request. Our shared identity did not give me comfort. It hurt.

I am not moved by Black cops who function as a distraction from the racism embedded in policing itself. Though Adams experienced police violence, he has not committed himself to ending it. 

Eerily reminiscent of white mayors before him, Adams proposes reintroducing stop-and-frisk for police to catch people who possess guns in public spaces. He said the policy should have never ended, despite decades of evidence that stop-and-frisk enabled racial profiling of Black people with little results. Between 2004 and 2012, Black and Latino people made up 83% of people stopped by the NYPD. Of more than 685,000 people stopped in 2011 at the peak of the program, about 88% of people were found not guilty.

Before I knew this data, I knew my dad — how he would be stopped on his way to the store to pick up diapers, leaving my mom to wait for him anxiously. While spot checks and arrests were ineffective at curbing drug overdose and gun violence, they were effective at injecting fear into Black communities. 

Yet, Adams has served the system and has come to believe it will protect him. As other candidates propose non-police solutions for ending gun violence, Adams recycles harmful policies. 

To carry out stop-and-frisk, Adams intends to reinstate the NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime unit, whose officers killed Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Saheed Vessell and numerous others. Despite making up about 6% of officers, the unit was responsible for 31% of fatal NYPD shootings according to an investigation by The Intercept. 

Adams claims he will reform this unit; however, the anti-crime unit was a reform itself. It had absorbed officers from the disbanded plainclothes Street Crime Unit, whose officers killed Amadou Diallo by shooting him 41 times. Plainclothes units enable police misconduct by design, as officers can take advantage of their undercover status to evade accountability for the harm they cause. 

When Adams is not empowering the NYPD to commit harm, he is supporting measures that enable correction officers to do so.

New York State recently passed a law to limit the use of solitary confinement in compliance with international human rights standards. Effective in one year, it will limit confinement, once imposed on incarcerated people for years, to 15 days. People with serious mental illness and other health risks will not be placed in confinement at all. 

At a town hall on mental health, Adams said he does not support ending solitary confinement for people who correction officers deem violent. As people formerly subjected to solitary confinement and people who have lost loved ones to solitary confinement praised the passage of this bill, I remain floored by how Adams did not support them in this effort.

Solitary confinement is torture. Isolating people from their environment and community in a single room, cell or hole, causes numerous health risks, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, appetite and weight loss, heart palpitations, hallucinations, susceptibility to self-mutilation, as well as decreased levels of brain activity after only seven days inside, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice. If you could not bear the conditions of quarantine, imagine undergoing such isolation while confined to a single room, at constant risk of being abused by correction officers and unable to interact with other human beings for years. 

I think of Kalief Browder, a Black teenager who was arrested at age 16 and held in pre-trial detention at Rikers Island for three years because he could not afford bail. He was subjected to solitary confinement for two of these years and abused by correction officers during his time spent there. At age 22, two years after being exonerated and released, he took his own life. I think of how he attended a community college at CUNY and how our paths could have crossed. 

I think of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died from an epileptic seizure during her ninth day in solitary confinement.

And I wonder how one can claim to value Black and brown lives while supporting practices that have claimed many.

As Adams collects endorsements from elected officials and labor unions, it is necessary to critique his carceral approach to social problems.

The carceral system is killing us and diversifying its perpetrators will not end the violence. Rather, diversity strengthens the narrative that the system is worth saving and distracts us from protecting people harmed by it. When we focus on the hearts and minds of individual officers, we isolate them from the system they participate in.

So, instead of discussing how to protect Black youth from criminalization in schools, conversations focus on whether the criminalization is racially motivated. This focus on the intent of Black officers instead of the impact on Black youth prevents us from building a world in which Black people are safer. 

Adams facilitates this diversion of energy. He embraces the logic of “good cop” versus “bad cop.” He shares his experience as a victim of police violence to express support for Black people and then advocates for reintroducing the pro-carceral policies of mayors before him. 

“Adams fulfills liberal reformist fantasies that if the police force becomes more diverse — if perpetrators of state violence are Black rather than white — racist violence will end.” 

I don’t believe that single political figures are more powerful than millions of people who can organize against them. However, the mayor holds immense power over the police commissioner, the structure of the police department and the city budget. If we can choose a candidate who would fight alongside us to end police violence this June primary, we should. 

Former non-profit executive Dianne Morales is notably the only candidate to commit to reducing the NYPD budget of over 10 billion dollars by at least three billion in her first year. She intends to create a Community First-Responders Department made up of professionals trained in de-escalation and trauma intervention. They would respond to mental health crises, substance abuse and homelessness.

Civil rights attorney Maya Wiley has vowed to cut the NYPD budget by at least 1 billion dollars. She proposes a Participatory Justice Fund that would allow communities directly impacted by gun violence to allocate money toward resources and programs proven to reduce violence.

Former U.S. housing secretary Shaun Donovan plans to cut roughly three billion dollars from the combined budget for NYPD and Department of Corrections to reinvest in community needs; although, he has also expressed support for reinstating the anti-crime unit.

All three candidates have creative plans based on input from school communities on how to remove police from schools and keep students safe. 

I hope that when you rank candidates this June, you will not rank candidates who intend to expand the police state such as Adams or Yang, but vote for candidates who are seeking to build a more just world.

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