When Eric Adams was running for mayor in New York City’s Democratic primary, voters came to know him as the police candidate. After all, he had worked in the NYPD for two decades.
Amid the surge in shootings during the pandemic, Adams focused his campaign on public safety. He said he would add 500 to 600 more police officers to the city’s subways, reinstate a plainclothes anti-gun unit that had been disbanded after several shootings and excessive-force complaints, and crack down on gangs and crews. And he won the primary.
Adams has positioned himself in sharp contrast to outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran as a police reformer. But a closer look at Adams’ statements and platform shows the truth is more complicated. Adams’ community-driven proposals drew far less attention — even as cities across the country pursued similar efforts and the federal government is making unprecedented funding available for violence prevention.
Adams’ approach is a “both-and” strategy, experts say, rather than a focus solely on more police. “He’s the new style of police candidate, which means he’ll look for those social phenomena that are subject to short-term mitigation,” said Richard Aborn, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on improving public safety. “Housing and food are two classic examples. Those are not considered classic public safety issues, but they drive crime.”
If he wins the general election in November — as the Democratic candidate, this is by far the most likely result — Adams will inherit the country’s largest city-coordinated gun violence prevention apparatus. New York City’s Crisis Management System comprises more than 50 community-based organizations that operate violence prevention programs in 21 neighborhoods, and was launched in 2014 under de Blasio. As de Blasio prepares to leave office, the system is slated to grow even larger with the $1 million addition of new pilot programs. Its total budget was $42 million last year, still a small fraction of the $5 billion New York Police Department budget.
Adams has been supportive of such efforts, but has also called for a reevaluation of their efficiency and effectiveness, because, as he said, “there’s a limited amount of resources.”
Many CMS programs follow the Cure Violence approach, which emulates public health strategies. It deploys so-called credible messengers — typically people with prior convictions who have credibility among the young men they’re trying to reach — to intervene in street conflicts and redirect at-risk youth to social services.
Adams publicly backed President Joe Biden’s $5 billion plan to fund community-based gun violence prevention efforts like those within the CMS system. And earlier last week, at a news conference decrying recent shootings in the city’s public housing facilities, he offered the programs support and promised new investments.
“We have to change the ecosystem of public safety,” said Adams, whose campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. “We thought it was only police. And now we’re showing that there’s a new ecosystem.”
Anti-violence programs depend on support, or at least respect and communication, from local police precinct commanders, according to several CMS group leaders who spoke with The Trace. Adams echoed that, and offered to help those groups build stronger relationships with agencies like the NYPD, the New York City Housing Authority, and the Crisis Management System programs.
“Historically, [police] hated our Crisis Management teams,” he said. “They don’t allow them inside the precincts. … We had a city that was hostile to the people who were on the ground.”
At a recent roundtable discussion with community leaders in Brooklyn, Adams said the city needs to ensure that violence prevention services aren’t overlapping. So he wants to encourage teams and organizations to consolidate. “It is great to have a team that is in a hotspot, working that area,” Adams said. “But we should not have 20 teams doing it.”
Evaluating the effectiveness of violence intervention programs is tricky. Proponents say that the number of shootings they prevented is difficult to track, and benefits like better community-police relations are hard to quantify. Despite that, a review by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that average monthly shootings decreased 28 percent across CMS sites in the first two years of the effort. The research also found that the CMS programs increased trust in police and reduced people’s reliance on violence to solve disputes.
“Some of this stuff can’t be measured,” he said. “But if you show how many folks you’re getting employed, if you show how many young people are engaged in your program — there are many ways to show that we are being productive.”
Despite Adams’ reputation as a proponent of more policing, some leaders of anti-violence groups hope that he “gets it” and will be supportive of their efforts, perhaps even more so than de Blasio. De Blasio’s investments in community-based anti-violence programs were unprecedented, but according to Andre Mitchell, the director of Man Up!, a violence interruption group and CMS site in Brooklyn, they still weren’t enough. Mitchell said Man Up!’s current funding only allows his team to have boots on the ground for eight hours on a typical day. “We are very excited about a new administration coming in with a mayor who is going to be even more understanding and more supportive,” Mitchell said at the news conference with Adams last week.
Expanding the system, cutting back on truly duplicative services, and professionalizing the groups would help, said Eric Waterman, the director of East Flatbush Village Inc., a nonprofit group that receives CMS funding for anti-violence work in schools.
But he cautioned that there are other issues within the system that need to be addressed: the influence of cronyism on which organizations receive funding; a lack of cooperation among agencies, police, and anti-violence groups; a lack of good-paying, union jobs for anti-violence workers to direct community members to; and inconsistent funding.
Adams has also promised to prevent gun violence before it happens by addressing social issues like homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity. He has proposed significant investments in turning shuttered hotels into permanent housing. He’s also promised to rebuild the city’s crumbling public housing infrastructure, and address food deserts and food insecurity.
But Adams’ support for alternatives — and his commitment to address the root causes of violence — doesn’t necessarily lessen his support for more policing.
“This idea that we’re going to achieve public safety with a goal of abolishing police — he doesn’t have time for that,” said Peter Moskos, a former police officer and criminologist at John Jay. “How that plays out is another issue.”
Aborn and Moskos expect Adams to maintain his focus on preventing gun violence through increased police enforcement, including partnerships with federal agencies, information sharing, and multistate efforts to stem the flow of illegal guns into the city.
Adams has said as much, promising to start task forces that coordinate agencies to prevent gun trafficking; to crack down on ghost guns; and to target illegal gun possession. He has said he would do that with investments in so-called precision policing, a set of tactics popularized by former NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton under de Blasio.
In reality, it’s a strategy that focuses policing on those they believe are “known shooters,” typically young men accused by police of being in gangs and crews. It has come under scrutiny by activists, who say that the strategy involves surveillance and harassment of communities of color, while targeting young men of color, based on guilt by association.