The Return of New York’s Most Notorious Cops

A new administration wants to target gun crime with units that were disbanded over abusive practices.

A plainclothes police officer confronts a person during the summer 2020 protests against police brutality. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
A plainclothes police officer confronts a person during the summer 2020 protests against police brutality. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

On September 29, 2019, Antonio Williams was waiting for a taxi outside the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx when a car quickly drove up to him and three men approached. He began to run and was pursued by two of the men. Then he was tackled to the ground and struggled with the men before shots rang out, striking him fatally in the chest.

The men who chased and shot Williams were police officers disguised in plain clothes, part of an anti-crime unit that had been assigned to patrol the area following a shooting that occurred days earlier. Police later said Williams was carrying a loaded handgun they recovered, though it was not fired.

“He was just standing by a mailbox waiting for a cab, and they just jumped out like cowboys in the middle of the night. Playing judge, jury, and executioner,” said Williams’s father, Shawn.

Anti-crime units were disbanded two years ago, but Mayor Eric Adams has been adamant about reviving them with an emphasis on halting the flow of illegal guns into the city. Though the units pursued that mission, they also used racial profiling and aggressive tactics that led to some of the most controversial killings by police officers in the past three decades.

The officers who shot Antonio Williams also killed Brian Mulkeen, a 33-year-old officer on the scene, in a case of friendly fire. Mulkeen was the last NYPD officer to die in the line of duty until Friday, when 22-year-old officer Jason Rivera was shot inside a Harlem apartment along with his partner, who barely survived. The two were ambushed by a gunman wielding what authorities said was a Glock pistol stolen in Baltimore four years ago and outfitted with an illegal drum-style magazine.

Rivera’s slaying was the latest in a series of shootings this month that have put the city and its new mayor on edge: On New Year’s Day, an off-duty cop was wounded in his car; in the following weeks, an officer was wounded in a struggle with a suspect, another officer was shot serving a warrant, a baby girl was struck by a stray bullet, and a 19-year old Burger King cashier was killed in an armed robbery in Harlem.

“It is our city against the killers,” Adams said the night of Rivera’s death. While he campaigned on stamping out gun violence, Adams had not outlined how he would do so until after so much blood had already been shed during his first three weeks as mayor.

On Monday, his office released a “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” that includes the revival of anti-crime units to seize illegal guns. The units will be called “Neighborhood Safety Teams,” made up of officers wearing plain clothes marking them as police as well as body cameras. “So they will be identifiable — not the way it was before when they were not identifiable at all. You don’t know who’s jumping out of the car at you, and that creates a lot of hostility,” Adams said during a press conference.

The biggest difference, he said, is these officers will be better trained. “The abusive police tactics will not return under my administration,” he said. In 2018, the Intercept found that 31 percent of fatal NYPD shootings involved a small number of plainclothes officers who were not only in anti-crime units.

“I do think that there is a certain temperament that all police need, but specifically plainclothes anti-crime units. Those police officers that tend to target crime more head on, on a more consistent basis,” said Keith Ross, who worked as an NYPD officer for 21 years and is now an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I would say that plainclothes and anti-crime officers, by virtue of the fact of their focus and objective, tend to be placed in situations where there is a far greater likelihood of some force being used.”

No matter the changes, Shawn Williams sees no benefit to bringing back the unit.

“I totally disagree with what he’s trying to do by bringing the anti-crime unit back on the street because those anti-crime units did murder and kill my son, doing an unconstitutional stop,” Williams said. “They come and say, ‘Okay, this time is gonna be different.’ Then it always ends up the same. All the time, it ends up the same way.”

On February 4, 1999, 23-year-old Amadou Diallo was shot and killed while standing in the entrance of his Bronx apartment building. Four officers with the Street Crime Unit, an older plainclothes unit, fired 41 shots at Diallo when they thought he was pulling out a gun. Diallo was unarmed and is believed to have been pulling his wallet out of his pocket. The officers were tried for second-degree murder but were acquitted. Diallo’s family sued the city and later reached a $3 million settlement.

Demonstrators protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo. Photo: Andrew Holbrooke/Getty Images

The Street Crime Unit was disbanded in 2002 under Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and the unit’s remaining officers were reassigned throughout the department, including to other plainclothes anti-crime units. Anti-crime units operated similarly with plainclothes officers targeting illegal firearms and making arrests. Much like the Street Crime Unit, anti-crime units were often the subject of civilian complaints and were increasingly involved in controversial shootings and deaths.

In 2014, Eric Garner died during an attempted arrest on Staten Island after Daniel Pantaleo, a plainclothes officer in an anti-crime unit, placed him in a prohibited chokehold. In a widely seen video of the encounter, Garner can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times as officers hold him down on the pavement. Pantaleo was fired from the force in 2019, five years after Garner’s death. Plainclothes anti-crime officers were also involved in the 2018 death of Saheed Vassell, whom police shot in Crown Heights after reports were made of a man wielding a gun. It was later found that Vassell, who was known to have struggled with mental-health issues, was holding a pipe that resembled a gun.

Then-Commissioner Dermot Shea officially disbanded the anti-crime units in summer 2020 following weeks of protests after George Floyd’s murder, reassigning the approximately 600 officers to other positions. As Adams advocates for the unit’s return to crack down on guns, some are not convinced enough will have changed between the previous iteration of the unit and what Adams has planned.

“I’ve been around policing work for enough time to know, oftentimes, it’s just changing names,” said Josmar Trujillo, a community organizer with the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. “In my point of view, it’s moving deck chairs on the deck of the Titanic. They move people around.”

There are some who see public safety as an issue that should be addressed in ways beyond changing or adapting policing tactics. Adams said his plans would also prevent violence by strengthening communities through providing more resources to violence interrupters, launching a summer jobs program for youth, expanding hospital-based violence-prevention programs, and redeploying mental-health resources.

“What we’ve seen is that those units don’t do anything to actually prevent crime,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, an organizer who worked recently as the executive director of Communities United for Police Reform Action. “They’re not an effective intervention in terms of guns or shootings in New York City. What’s effective is investing in violence interrupters, the Cure Violence system, the crisis-management system overall,” Kang said. “That’s been invested in a little bit over the past few years, but not in a way that’s significant citywide. And investing in that would do much more to actually address issues of gun violence than reanimating a unit that has been vilified for years because it’s been known to murder, brutalize, and harm New Yorkers in every neighborhood.”

As Antonio Williams’s family continues to mourn his loss, his father wants people to know there’s more to him than what was written in police and news reports.

“What I want people to know about my son, No. 1: He was human. Not the monster the NYPD tried to classify him as,” Shawn Williams said. “He was a loving individual. A great son, a great brother, great father. He did his best for his kids. He did best as he could.”

The Return of New York’s Most Notorious Cops