The Big Payback

Sixteen years ago, a computer-science geek from Queens named Eric Adams was about to graduate from New York City Technical College when he was asked to infiltrate the New York Police Department. The 23-year-old was pretty floored, and he wasn’t the only one: About a dozen young black men got the instruction at a meeting of the National Black United Front – a sort of precursor to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network led by the Reverend Herbert Daughtry out of Brooklyn’s House of the Lord’s Church. “I remember all of us looking around at each other and saying, ‘Are they kidding?’ ” Adams says now, chuckling. “But we idolized these men, and we were scared we would lose their respect. It was an awkward situation.”

No, they weren’t kidding, and, yes, Adams really did join the force – the lieutenant works midnight shifts in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s 88th Precinct. And recently, after five years of strident press conferences blasting police racism, Adams’s group, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, has won some friends in odd places. Last month, Commissioner Howard Safir actually shook hands with Adams in a meeting at One Police Plaza and candidly admitted investigating Adams in vain for allegedly consorting with a known felon. But Safir also denied (and still denies) investigating the 100 Blacks organization, a claim contradicted by the court testimony of a high-ranking internal-affairs officer. When Adams went public about the probe last week, he had another new friend with him, in what Newsday called an “unholy alliance”: the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “It’s the right thing to do,” PBA president Pat Lynch confided to his rank and file – and of course it can’t hurt the coming contract negotiations, either.

Until recently, a PBA presence at a 100 Blacks press conference was about as expected as a Duff-Perelman family reunion. But in a town where the police have been losing the benefit of the doubt, Adams and 100 Blacks are starting to leave the fringe behind. “Being able to have his name next to the PBA, that’s a major development,” says NYCLU chief Norman Siegel. “Once Giuliani and Safir are gone, Eric and the group will be invited in more and more.”

Adams’s infiltration has been slow and not without missteps. He rose up in the Guardians, the NYPD’s official black fraternal order, before helping form 100 Blacks, designing it to be elite, secretive, and unaffiliated with the force. The group’s structure, Adams says, “came from years of experience understanding how law enforcement, with cointelpro and other tactics, infiltrated organizations of color.” There’s no open enrollment and no actual leader, only an Arthurian ten-member council of co-founders, with Adams as spokesperson. From the start, though, Adams proved to be something of a loudmouth: During David Dinkins’s failed re-election effort, he questioned Giuliani ally Herman Badillo’s commitment to Hispanics by pointing out that his wife was Jewish, only to be disowned by Dinkins in the press. In 1994, he ran for Congress against Major Owens in Brooklyn, losing the primary after the Nation of Islam endorsed him.

But the times may have finally caught up with Adams. After the Diallo shooting, the group had one rancorous meeting with Safir where, Adams remembers, “we volunteered to spearhead the recruitment drive. We tried to establish a liaison with his top brass to prevent another Amadou by changing police training. But he didn’t want any of that – he was the commissioner, and he knew what he was doing.” A year later, the post-Diallo, post-Dorismond NYPD is a place where recruitment is an acknowledged failure and police training is under fire – but the climate is a little less explosive. Adams has changed a bit, too. At the “cordial” July 18 meeting, Adams says, he was moved to wish Safir well with his “health issues.” “There was disagreement, but little to no hostility,” Adams reflects. It’s a sign, perhaps, of Adams’s own evolution as a leader.

“He needs to learn more about the dynamics of police-community relations,” says Siegel, “but he’s becoming more nuanced on that. And he’s learning to work in multiracial coalitions.” Now that he’s won a little affirmation, Adams says he’d like to “get my hands dirty” again in a congressional campaign. And, naturally, he’s writing an autobiography. Someday soon, in a courtroom or a morning talk show or at One Police Plaza, Eric Adams’s infiltration will be televised.

The Big Payback