the city politic

Eric Adams Isn’t Off to a Great Start on Public Safety

The new mayor needs to focus more on substance than show.

Photo: John Nacion/SOPA Images/Shutterstock
Photo: John Nacion/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Mayor Eric Adams, although surrounded by an attentive entourage of security personnel and a few aides, seemed a determined but isolated figure as he boarded a flight to Chicago on Friday to talk about crime and law enforcement with his Windy City counterpart, Lori Lightfoot. Heads turned and a few passengers snuck peeks while the mayor, multitasking in full #GetStuffDone mode, simultaneously conducted a telephone conference call, grabbed a snack in an airport lounge and briefly chatted with me (by coincidence, my family and I were heading to a mini-vacation on the same flight).

Adams invested a good chunk of his day meeting with Lightfoot about ways to tackle gang violence, subway crime, and the scourge of gun violence, a cluster of issues on which he has staked his mayoralty and the future of the city.

“We’re going to learn from Chicago what they’re doing on their El [subway] line, so that we can see best practices,” Adams said at a press conference with Chicago reporters later that day. “We’re going to travel throughout the country and see what others are doing. Washington D.C. [which Adams visited last week]  has seen an uptick [in crime]. All over the country, we’re seeing that, and we are going to put our heads together and operate as a team.  How do we make our transit line safe, as well as our streets safe?  That is the energy we are bringing. We have to work together. Cities will determine the success of America. We know that, and it’s time for the federal government to know that.”

Adams is marching toward his 100th day in office with grand pronouncements of his national political relevance, along with healthy poll numbers and no shortage of confidence. But even supporters of the mayor are beginning to raise questions about whether his strategies will work.

It seems clear, for instance, that quelling the rising tide of disorder in the subways — which have reached the highest levels of assault and homicide in 25 years — is not simply a matter of enforcing the MTA’s rules of conduct, which prohibit jumping the turnstile, sleeping on subway cars, or loitering in a station for more than an hour.

Many vulnerable New Yorkers — some with very serious needs for mental health and/or addiction treatment — are living on the trains because they fear being victimized in city shelters. It’s an understandable fear: In 2017, a stunning 54 percent of people leaving state prisons were released to city shelters, a prison-to-shelter pipeline that creates predictable safety problems and drives unhoused people onto the streets and subways. The mayor would be well advised to press Governor Hochul’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for a drastic reduction, if not an outright ban, on releasing people to shelters.

Adams’s anti crime plan for subways now includes ordering chiefs, the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officers, to regularly walk a beat in the subways. “I’m telling all of my chiefs that generals don’t lead from the rear, they lead from the front,” Adams said at the Chicago press conference. “All of my chiefs are now getting in the subway system. They’re doing a tour of duty in the subway system to have a visible presence.”

That move drew a rare public rebuke from William Bratton, the ex-NYPD Commissioner whose storied career includes stints running the police departments of New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.

“While I’ve been very supportive of the mayor and his public safety initiatives, I cannot support this one. It creates significant safety risks for the Chiefs and public,” Bratton said on Twitter. “Transit policing, like that of housing developments, requires significant safety training. They must know how to open subway doors in an emergency, calmly and safely evacuate passengers from disabled trains into tunnels to exits … Almost none of the current NYPD leadership, including the Transit Bureau, has that specialized training or experience. Everything old can be new again, but only if it learns from the past mistakes and successes.”

Bratton’s respectful critique is echoed by disgust in the upper ranks of the NYPD, the proud veterans of the decades-long battle that drove crime to historic lows. Some are especially disdainful of being assigned to what one calls “a dog and pony show” by Adams, who retired from the NYPD without ever having run a precinct or major patrol division.

“It goes to show you that the man never held an executive position in any paramilitary organization. He never had a command,” a law enforcement source told me. “You have to put the blame strictly on the commanding officer of that district and their executive officer. ‘What are you doing about it?’ Quiz him, question him or her. Tell them, ‘I want this place covered, and you get out there and do it.’ [Adams] wants to show an omnipresence, which goes to show you he has no clue what police work is all about. He’s reduced chiefs down to a fucking sergeant. It’s not done that way. ”

The other problem brewing for Adams is the crisis on Rikers Island. The mayor has repeatedly asked state lawmakers to give judges the power to make tougher bail decisions that result in a higher level of pretrial detention — a tough stance that Governor Hochul shows signs of supporting.

But Rikers Island, the place where New York sends people to wait their day in court, has tumbled beyond crisis to a state of near-collapse.

Two men in Rikers custody died last week in conditions currently under investigation. That makes three fatalities so far this year. In 2021, there were 16 deaths, more than in the prior two years combined. A 78-page report by the federal monitor overseeing Rikers — released right before the two deaths — is a damning and alarming effort to call public attention to deadly, dangerous conditions in the jail.

“The first few months of 2022 have revealed the jails remain unstable and unsafe for both inmates and staff. The volatility and instability in the jails is due, in no small part, to unacceptable levels of fear of harm by detainees and staff alike,” the report says. “The Department [of Correction] is trapped in a state of persistent dysfunctionality, where even the first step to improve practice is undercut by the absence of elementary skills and the convolution of basic correctional practices and systems. … This leaves the Department at an impasse — in a place where many of the requirements of the Consent Judgment [a 2015 order by a federal court to improve conditions] are simply unattainable.”

Adams has promised change, but the rampant violence that caused a federal judge to appoint a monitor has not abated.

“The 48 stabbing/slashings that occurred in January 2022 ranked as the second highest monthly total since the Consent Judgment took effect,” the report explains. “An unfortunate and dangerous side effect of these high rates of use of force and violence is that they have become normalized and have seemingly lost their power to instill a sense of urgency among those with the power to make change. The Monitoring Team must emphasize that these high rates are not typical, they are not expected, they are not normal.”

Not only will Adams have to answer hard questions about why he keeps asking judges to send more people into this city-run house of horrors; he may soon face the possibility that federal judge Laura Taylor Swain could order a full or partial takeover of the jail. Judges have taken such measures in other jurisdictions, including Alabama, Michigan, and Washington D.C.; a jail system in Mississippi is currently fighting to avoid receivership.

And keep in mind that the rising violence at Rikers doesn’t stay on the island: the ten or so neighborhoods from which most arrestees have come for the last 30 years — and to which they will eventually return — inevitably get affected by a revolving door of violence. The question will be raised: is the administration truly curing violence, or simply moving it from place to place?

“I’m sending a clear message that it’s no longer acceptable to have passengers, and those who are trying to open our city again, to feel as though they can’t use our mass transit. That’s the lifeblood of our system,” Adams told reporters in Chicago.

Adams keeps raising the stakes by doubling and tripling down on public safety as his first and most pressing task, and one his strategies will get under control. But make no mistake about it: dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.  New York’s battle for public safety is about to get gritty.

Eric Adams Isn’t Off to a Great Start on Public Safety