Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is not, by any means, a prison or police abolitionist. But you may be forgiven for thinking so if you listen to some of the language he uses to describe his vision of what the future of public safety could look like.
“Hopefully one day we can evolve to the point, as human beings, that we don’t need any form of policing,” Adams tells The Root over the phone on Wednesday morning. “How do we address our issues? How do we use community-based systems of resolving conflicts? I think that’s quite possible. I don’t think that’s a utopia.”
But, Adams, cautions, “Are we there now? No, we’re not.”
The journey to this moment has been a long one for Adams—spanning more than 20 years as an NYPD officer and another 20 years in public service. He has always positioned himself as a reformer, particularly when it comes to policing: Adams was a vocal opponent of stop-and-frisk policies during his time in the police force, joining the force under the guidance of Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who told him and other young black men to “infiltrate” the nation’s largest police department.
These experiences mean he can talk about policing with a specificity that many other politicians can’t. He’s called for more robust data collection of arrests based on race and ethnicity, to better track patterns of biased policing within the NYPD. He’s calling for allocating substantial portions of the NYPD budget to other departments, like education. He wants to completely transform the criteria used to select precinct commanders, emphasizing metrics that show engagement with the community (like how many police assisted local residents with getting city identification cards, or helped hand out Census forms).
Six months ago, these proposals would have certainly seemed radical—and compared to other prominent city and state leaders, they still are. But the conversation in the last month around policing has shifted dramatically from “transformative” reforms to defunding and abolition. For Adams, the question is how effectively he can sell his vision of public safety to a city with a long and tumultuous history with policing.
Racist policing is, of course, a nationwide problem—one that the breadth, diversity, and persistence of the country’s Black Lives Matter protests speaks to. But in a city policed by 36,000 officers, the borough of Brooklyn has been at the forefront of discussions about the NYPD and its disproportionate impact on black and brown communities. The rapidly gentrifying borough has had a strained relationship with the police force for decades; given Brooklyn’s size (it is, by population, the largest borough in New York) and relationship to policing, it’s no wonder that the city’s largest protests have occurred there.
Born in Brownsville, Adams is very much a native son of the borough, and as its president, Adams has been one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most vocal critics when it comes to policing. This was true particularly during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. After several high-profile “social distancing” arrests of black men occurred in his borough and in other parts of the city, Adams compared the police tactics to the stop-and-frisk arrests of the early aughts (data about these arrests would soon confirm that there was a marked racial disparity in who was arrested for not “social distancing” adequately).
Now, as the institution of policing itself is being debated, Adams—who has repeatedly voiced interest in a mayoral run—says he is heartened by the progress the Black Lives Matter protests have brought and the newfound political will to look at “community-based models” of policing. He tells me he has been in conversation with the mayor about a proposal where civilians would have a greater say in picking precinct commanders. Adams is also encouraged by the charges brought not just against former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd last month after kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, but against the three officers who didn’t intervene.
“These are some reforms that we’ve called for for so many years and they seem to be taking root,” says Adams, before emphasizing there’s still a lot of ground to be gained.
“There is an entire puzzle that needs to be put together of what policing and public safety need to look like,” he continues. “We only put a few pieces on the board. A lot of big pieces remain.”
For Adams, these big pieces include taking “substantial portions of the police budget”—which currently sits at $11 billion—and funneling them toward initiatives that could prevent crime; in Adams’ words, a “proactive, rather than reactive” approach to public safety. Here, he cites the high instances of dyslexia and mental health issues among those imprisoned at Rikers Island. At the infamous New York City Jail, nearly half have mental health issues, while 30 to 40 percent are dyslexic, he told AM NY last year. Eighty percent of those incarcerated at the jail don’t have a high school diploma.
To him, these statistics indicate that more money ought to be going to youth services, public schools and, in particular, learning disability programs, which can help support young people in their education.
But Adams’ position, which emphasizes tackling the root causes of crime, is not necessarily an abolitionist one. Adams very much believes in the necessity of a police force, and wants to see the city take incremental, “tactical” steps to fixing policing rather than an outright disbandment.
Adams points to high rates of gun violence to explain why Brooklyn—and New York City, broadly—still needs the NYPD, citing several recent shootings in his borough.
“There’s a level of professionalism that goes with responding to a shooting. Everybody can’t walk around with a gun. Everyone can’t walk around dealing with those extreme investigations that come with serious crimes,” he says. “There are, at this point, still roles that police officers have to take...to get to the root of a serious criminal action.”
But Adams also emphasizes that he has lived experience with the mutual aid, community-care model of public safety—one that doesn’t rely on police. Adams tells me that before becoming a police officer, he took part in a community safety initiative on his block in Prospect Place. He describes his particular street as being high in drug crime, and subject to abusive policing.
“Then, it turned out later that some of the police were involved in the selling of drugs and guns,” he says. “We organized the block and said, ‘hey, we got this. You don’t even have to come down this block.’”
He doesn’t go into the specifics about how this was done—focusing instead on the country’s collective addiction to using police to solve myriad problems, ranging from loud music to mental health concerns.
“I saw how neighborhoods stopped going from believing the answer was 911,” says Adams. “We evolved in a city, in a country where resolutions to issues were in three numbers: 9-1-1.”
To get a clearer idea of Adams’ values and approach to community care then, it’s helpful to look at his time as a state senator. In 2010, Adams, who said he acted at the behest of a group of young college women, launched a “Stop the Sag” campaign in the city, directed at getting young black and brown men to pull their pants up. The campaign included billboards and a political ad that connected pants-sagging to a long history of racist stereotyping. The video begins with a series of racist caricatures, before landing on footage showing young, black men walking with their pants down.
“It is disturbing that today we see similarly negative and degrading imagery, but this time it is self-imposed,” Adams says in a voice over.
Ten years later, Adams remains proud of the campaign, which provides a revealing look into his values and his approach as a community leader. While many might be wary of the respectability politics that come with policing how black people dress—particularly with such a public-facing campaign—Adams sees it differently. To him, the trend of sagging pants is indicative of a failure of community care.
“During that time, you were seeing 30 and 40-year-old men walking down the street, showing their pubic hairs, showing their underwear. That’s not civilized,” he says. “How did we go from the men of the ’50s and ’60s, always impressive attire, business attire, no matter what the economics was, to a point where we walk the streets showing our undergarments.”
“When we do a real reflection of that period, I just think we made a great mistake. We were trying to be cool with our children,” Adams continues.
But when we talk about how dress codes have historically been weaponized against black folks—in the streets, in schools, in the workplace—Adams makes clear he never intended for the campaign to be punitive in nature. What he wants is community interventions—adults pulling children aside and telling them that their behavior is not acceptable.
It is fair to say that Adams defies easy categorization as a politician. He was a vocal critic of NYPD policing practices as a member of the police force, but still managed to climb the ranks of the department. He cites experience with robust community care that exists outside police patrols, but remains focused on reforming and improving the institution of policing itself.
It’s important to note here that abolitionist philosophy—which is the driving force behind calls to defund police departments—is focused on defunding as just one step toward prison abolition. But in order to successfully do this, we need to ensure that other facets of our society—our schools, our workplaces, our mental health services, housing—don’t replicate the same patterns of discrimination, harassment, and abuse found in policing. While city councilors and other elected officials are pushing to cut funding to the NYPD, considerations like how the city’s deeply segregated school system can successfully use these new funds in a way that advances racial progress remain to be articulated by any city leader. Notably, Adams says he wants to see the city’s schools using a restorative justice approach, working with students and the community when discipline or behavior issues arise, rather than kicking them out of school. But how this wide-scale transition would look, particularly in a pandemic, is a conversation the city’s leaders have not arrived at yet.
This is the task that lies before Adams and other elected officials as they grapple with reforms at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is driving the conversation of what a substantive transformation of American society ought to look like. Every politician is charged with developing and selling a vision of the community, of the city they want to lead. For decades, Adams’ vision has been one of reform and, ultimately, a faith that policing can and ought to work for vulnerable communities. The question that remains to be answered is no longer just a matter of how to accomplish this kind of reform, but who in his community believe the same.