In February of 1994, Eric Adams was furious with his new boss. Rudy Giuliani, just a month into his first term as mayor, had made headlines for a plan to replace community policing, a hallmark of the David Dinkins era in which officers helped out with social problems they encountered on their beats, with a more traditional policing model focused on responding to street crime.
Adams, a 33-year-old transit cop, called a press conference to warn that the approach would escalate conflict in communities of color.
“To just go out and knock them over the head, those are the days of the past," Adams, flanked by members of the Guardians, a Black officers association, told reporters outside of City Hall. “If the Mayor is going to micromanage the Police Department,” he continued, “then we’re in trouble.”
After winning the Democratic primary this week, Adams is poised to become New York City's 110th mayor. Barring a major upset in the general election, he will soon be responsible for managing the police department he built his reputation by criticizing.
Yet there remains uncertainty about how the nation’s largest police force might change under an Adams administration.
His enigmatic rise, and often competing public statements — he has described himself as a "conservative on crime," with plans to "redefine the ecosystem of public safety" — have left law enforcement experts, cops, and anti-violence advocates struggling to reconcile which version of Adams may ultimately hold sway in City Hall.
Adams, who would be the city’s second Black mayor, rose to prominence as a firebrand cop before becoming a state legislator and Brooklyn Borough President. In his decades in the public eye, he has seemed driven by "intuition and gut instinct," according to one observer, rather than ideology.
He has joined and left the Republican party, testified against stop-and-frisk, then suggested a narrower version should return. He has the support of both Giuliani, his one-time nemesis, and Abner Louima, who in 1997 was physically attacked and sexually assaulted by police officers.
“I’m expecting Adams to be somewhere between de Blasio and Giuliani,” said Chris Herrmann, a former NYPD crime analyst, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But it’ll be interesting to see where he lands on that spectrum.”
On the campaign trail, Adams, who did not return an inquiry for this story, touted his unique qualifications to both stem the rise in gun violence and repair relations between police and communities of color. That pitch earned him overwhelming support in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including those that have experienced the worst impact of violent crime, as well as in moderate white areas in the outer boroughs.
“He has the holistic vision. Now we have to put that methodology into practice,” said Iesha Sekou, founder of the anti-violence group Street Corner Resources in Harlem. “Words and theory is one thing, but the application of it, and doing it without criminalizing young people who live in these violent communities, is what matters.”
One of the signature public safety initiatives put forward by Adams rests on a “strategic civilianization” of the police department. By moving non-crime related duties, such as transferring barricades and clerical work, to lower paid workers, Adams estimates the city would save $500 million annually. He would spend that money on funding to the city’s network of credible messengers and violence interrupters.
Reformers have praised that commitment, but pushed back on his plan to bring back the NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime squads, which were disbanded by NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea following weeks of protests over police brutality and unaccountability after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Adams says the newly constituted units would focus solely on guns.
“Policing must have an element of uncertainty,” Adams told MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday. “Right now, if you just have blue and white cars out there, the bad guy is going to carry that gun with a level of comfort and that's a big mistake that we're making.”
Jeffrey Fagan, a criminologist and law professor at Columbia University, said Adams faces a delicate balancing act in making police more visible—something voters largely support—while simultaneously shifting their “task environment” so that officers are seen as guardians, rather than occupying forces.
“We know that people want more presence, not more arrests, which is a subtle distinction,” Fagan said. “It’s going to be tempting for a guy like Adams to revert back to the Giuliani, Bill Bratton, Ray Kelly model of policing, which means very aggressive interdictions of people on the street.”
Those efforts may be hemmed in by the City Council, as well as the city’s current financial outlook. In unique circumstances, there is precedent for bypassing typical constraints, Fagan noted, pointing to Mayor Dinkins’s ability to secure state financing for 6,000 new police officers in 1990.
Crime remains only a fraction of what it was in 1990 — there were 2,605 murders that year, compared to 447 in 2020 — but the recent uptick in shootings has loomed large over the city’s pandemic recovery. Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency to combat gun violence, prompting Adams to exclaim: “What took so long?”
Adams’s plan involves aggressively targeting gang members and conducting spot-checks on buses to stop the flow of guns arriving from the south. Like Cuomo, he has linked the city’s recovery to ending gun violence.
“No one is going to come to New York as a tourist if a 3-year-old is shot in Times Square,” Adams said in May. “No one is going to open a business in the city if they are afraid for their employees.”
So far, Adams has stopped short of calling for an increase in the NYPD budget, emphasizing cost-saving measures within the department that could free up officers to solve crime. He has also roundly rejected calls to “defund the police.”
The sentiment has earned him an usual base of supporters, including ex-police commissioner Bill Bratton, the Police Benevolent Association, and the conservative editorial pages of the New York Post. The Sergeants Benevolent Association did not endorse a candidate, but Ed Mullins, the head of the SBA, wrote in a text message that he was happy Adams won. Meanwhile, the NYPD Captain's Union, of which Adams was once a part, endorsed Andrew Yang.
Another active NYPD officer, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said he expected a “heavy hand out of the gate” from the Adams administration. “Lord help those in Washington Square Park if it’s still jumping when he takes control,” the officer added, referring to late-night parties at the park that have prompted curfews and stand-offs with police.
Adams has also vowed to improve the culture of the NYPD by publicizing a list of cops the department is monitoring for bad behavior, and empowering community boards to play a role in choosing their precinct leaders. Other commitments include training NYPD leaders at top institutions and adding more people of color to the department. (Adams, who previously supported a residency requirement for cops, now says that officers should be encouraged, but not mandated, to live in the five boroughs. His own residency status became an issue late in the mayoral primary.)
Whether he’s successful at implementing those reforms will likely depend on his appointees, including deputy mayors and a new police commissioner, according to Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a political consultant who previously handled policing for Mayor de Blasio’s press shop.
“We spend so much time talking about training and recruiting, but there’s a real difference in rhetoric of how the mayor talks about policing and how the police actually act,” she noted.
Adams has promised to appoint a woman to lead the NYPD, which would be a first in the department’s 175-year history. He’s reportedly reached out to Chief of Department Juanita Holmes, who would be the first woman to lead the department, as well as two other unnamed choices.
In the City Council, which is also set to be led by women, Adams will face a body that is more progressive, and potentially more hostile, to his policing agenda than past administrations. The council is set to include police abolitionists and other activists, whose vision of policing is directly at odds with Adams’s.
In Bed-Stuy, where Adams owns a Brooklyn home and won overwhelmingly, the City Council seat will soon be held by Chi Ossé, a 23-year-old man who led Black Lives Matter marches, last summer.
Ossé, who was politically activated by George Floyd’s murder, says he spent the last year talking to New Yorkers about ways to reimagine public safety and prioritize alternatives to policing.
“There might be some middle ground we can find here,” Ossé said of Adams. “I’m hopeful, or maybe I’m naive.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Juanita Holmes would be the NYPD's first Black police commissioner. She would be the first Black woman to lead the department, but not the first Black commissioner.