just asking questions

‘You’re Not Really Trained on How to De-escalate’: Eric Adams on the NYPD and the Protests

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who’s thinking about running for mayor next year, spent 22 years in the NYPD before going into politics, retiring as a captain in 2006. During that time, he founded an activist group, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, that advocated reform from within the department. Those two careers put him in a unique position to comment on last night’s protests, particularly after multiple incidents of police abuse were caught on video and circulated on Twitter. We spoke by phone on Sunday afternoon.

I’ve seen from your Twitter feed that you were out in the streets last night: Tell me about where you were and what you saw.

I was in several locations, but I was on Flatbush Avenue down by Applebee’s, and then I walked with the crowd up to the Barclays Center and saw the destruction of various locations on the way, particularly at the TD Bank — the windows were destroyed — and at Whole Foods the windows were knocked out, and the Apple Store was vandalized, as well.

Did you see violence as it happened or were you there after the fact?

Well, as the group was walking, they were destroying property, so I saw the destruction at the iPhone store — the one at TD Bank had already happened.

What’s your reaction to what you saw? It has to be a complicated set of feelings for you.

The mere fact of the way you asked that question really hit at the heart of it, because there are mixed emotions for me: My life has been benchmarked by riots. When I was a child, Clifton Glover, a 10-year-old, was killed in South Jamaica, Queens, and I remember being on the baseball diamond at the Forty Projects, playing with a group of white children. And all of a sudden, while I was at the plate, we saw a crowd of about 60 people who lived in the Forty Projects emerge on the field and started beating the players with aluminum bats and metal pipes, and it was just traumatizing. So, throughout life, those encounters are very significant moments. When I was a child living on Gates Avenue in Brooklyn when Dr. King was killed, I saw my block go up in flames. We’ve had protests before where I marched in the stop-and-frisk protests during the day, and at night I’d put on my uniform and patrol the same protests.

We’re at a unique place, and many people don’t understand: The righteous protesters who deal with police abuse — what’s different now is that we have professional agitators, and their goal is not police abuse but to burn our cities. And that’s why you see fire-bombings — the people who are doing the Molotov cocktails. These are professionals who know how to do incendiary devices. They carry bags of rocks and stones so they can resupply agitators. We found a vehicle on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights that had incendiary devices, a trunkful of gasoline. New York may not realize it, but they’ve never been here before. I’ve been speaking with some of the organizers and telling them they have to identify the people who are from outside the city that are here to hijack their movement, to destroy and harm the city.

So are those people sympathetic to the cause or are they alt-right people, or something else?

No, they’re — I think it’s an interesting combination, with similar goals at opposite ends of the spectrum. There are far-right people who want to see a race riot between cops and young blacks, and they’re doing everything they can to aggravate that, throwing stones, throwing liquid substances that burn the skin. And then there are these sorta anarchists who are saying We want to destroy government, because government has been unfair, as they see it, to the poor. You have this mixture that’s really infiltrated these organizations.

When you were on the force, did you go into high-intensity protest situations like this?

Without a doubt! [Laughs] You remember, I policed under Giuliani! You spelled protests with Giuliani’s name, you know? And there were many moments where I made it clear with my team of officers and sergeants that, listen — we have to be our brother’s keeper. There’s going to be times when we are going to be angry, when we have to subdue people — and this wasn’t at a time when everyone had a camera. But I made it clear — and I had a reputation for what I expected of my cops — that we could not get wrapped up in emotions.

And believe it or not, that is what’s wrong right now with policing. In the police department, they have this term, “mobilization”: level one, two, or three. Depending on the level, everyone knows how to respond — if it’s a level one, it’s a local task force, level two is boroughwide, three is larger. When we make those mobilization calls, we do not take into account the character, or the ability, of the officers that are responding. And that’s the big mistake, because the cop that I want with me when I have to kick in a door to go after a guy that has a gun is different from the cop that I want with me when I’m talking down a hostage situation. So if we don’t differentiate, that’s a big problem. I guarantee you, if you look at the records of the cops who drove the vehicle through people, or the cop that sprayed the person in the face with Mace or pushed the young girl down to the ground or that beat people, they were Garcia-type cops — remember that cop on the Lower East Side who beat the person a couple of weeks ago because he wasn’t social distancing? Imagine him on the front line of these protests …

When everybody’s emotions are up.

Exactly. When we do these protests, you need a cop that has been specially chosen to be mobilized under these types of encounters so they can deal with the emotional stress that goes with it. Every doctor is not fit to be an emergency-room doctor.

Okay, but then: If a lot of cops are not suited to that kind of work — why are they still on the force?

That’s a good question. Because there’s layers to an occupation: Because you are in a career doesn’t mean you are suited for every job in that career. The mere fact that they’re not suited to be in these high-intensity environments doesn’t mean they’re not suited to be a cop. Teachers do special ed; some teachers have more patience than others! There’s a reason some want to be high school teachers and not elementary school teachers. We do that in every other profession — we tend to believe in policing that if you’re in policing, you must be fit for every job in policing. I think that’s wrong. That’s a terrible way to think.

Someone said to me today, “The thing a cop most has to do in a situation like this is de-escalate.” 

Yep. Right. And it’s not taught. You’re taught how to de-escalate someone else that is in crisis stage, but you’re not really trained on how to de-escalate yourself and your partner when they’re in that same crisis mode. Policing is an antiquated mindset, and until you get the leadership to change their way of thinking, we’re going to continue to stay in the state that we’re in. Policing for the most part has not evolved as society has.

Speaking of leadership, have you talked to the commissioner today?

No, but we’re communicating by text, sending back and forth, as well as with the mayor. Just letting ’em know that we’ve got to get through this together.

What’s the mayor talking about with you?

Just my thoughts. He’s just getting my perspective, giving me his thoughts around that, and I’ve been sharing my position.

He’s getting a lot of criticism today.

Yeah, about some of his responses. You have to have zero tolerance of officers who—remember, police officers have two rights that no other person, and that includes the mayor, is in possession of: You have the right to take life and the right to take liberty. You have to be held to the highest standards. Even the president doesn’t have those rights. And when they do something wrong, the mayor has to have zero tolerance of it, and some of the actions of some of those cops really crossed the line. An overwhelming number of them, you have to take your hat off to them—they showed a great level of restraint. You need only one or two that can turn a good job into a terrible outcome.

Brooklyn President and Former NYPDer Eric Adams on Protests