It’s rare to read something that reflects a grasp of a complex problem, rarer still to read it in the New York Times. But NY1 political anchor Errol Louis took the risk and expressed the complications that few will admit because it muddies their simplistic campaign slogans designed to appeal to a constituency with an 8-second attention span and the grasp of an iguana in a snowstorm.
The context is the battle of New York City mayoral candidates. On the one side, there’s former cop Eric Adams. On the other side, there’s Maya Wiley, former SDNY assistant United States attorney and chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. There’s a fair chance neither will win the Democratic primary, the winner of which will become mayor, now that Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia (who was endorsed by the New York Times and NY Daily News as a decent mechanic, but can’t seem to get any traction) have joined forces to game ranked choice voting, it’s hard to say what will happen. And then there is a laundry list of others, from Scott Stringer to Paperboy Prince.
But the two candidates who best reflect the Dem’s internal battle over cops are Adams and Wiley.
An urgent debate is playing out right now in the Democratic Party about policing as cities see sharp rises in violent crime. The fight to control that disorder is also a battle for the direction of the party — do police departments need more resources to fight crime? Do they need to be restrained, given a long record of abuses and controversial policies like stop-and-frisk? How do the police earn more trust from Black and brown residents? Which tactics are right, and which tactics violate our rights?
That last sentence might be a bit of an unfortunate mash, since tactics which violate our rights might well be effective, but still violate our rights. The more serious question is which tactics will work that don’t violate our rights, and there is more than enough to argue about without dipping in the unconstitutional well.
Nowhere are these questions more fully joined than in New York City, where two leading Democratic candidates for mayor, Eric Adams and Maya Wiley, have had a running war of words over race, policing and civil rights. Their clashes reflect an important debate within Black communities that stretches back decades. And if Mr. Adams or Ms. Wiley wins in Tuesday’s primary, he or she would become a national voice on crime; their arguments are revealing about the trade-offs facing Democrats and the urban voters who help make up the party’s base.
Whether either would become a national voice on crime, or anything else, has yet to be seen. Bill deBlasio has been mayor of New York City for two terms and the closest he’s come is being a national (and local) punchline. Then again, NYC is still kind of a big deal, the poster city for what is good and bad in urban governance and policing. It’s just a matter of numbers, as there are enough people to make the raw numbers of murders stand out, even if their percentage increase or decrease isn’t much different than anywhere else where they take entirely different approaches and end up with similar results.
The debate reflects a cruel, decades-old dilemma: Black neighborhoods are often over-policed and under-policed at the same time. The Kerner Commission study of inner-city riots in 1960s found a widespread belief in Black communities that “the police maintain a much less rigorous standard of law enforcement in the ghetto, tolerating illegal activities like drug addiction, prostitution, and street violence that they would not tolerate elsewhere.”
This is a significant insight. To start, it is simply a fact of deployment and tactics that policing happens differently in black and Hispanic neighborhood, which is a nice way of saying Harlem, Washington Heights, the South Bronx and most of Brooklyn, than it does in other areas. No cop has ever done a vertical on East 59th Street, or blocked off Sutton Place and tossed and searched everybody on the street. The rationale is that the cops go where the crime is, raising a chicken and egg question as to some crimes, but other crimes, often violent crimes, happen far more often uptown than down. It’s fine to debate why, but you can’t debate that it happens.
The Kerner Commission’s findings were the impetus for such tactics as broken windows and stop & frisk, theoretically designed to bring more rigorous policing to the “ghetto” so it would be as safe as the white neighborhoods. The only problems were that it didn’t work and involved flagrantly unconstitutional police conduct. And then crime dropped in NYC and while everybody, particularly the cops, took credit for it, nobody really knows why. Theories abound, but they’re just theories.
Just as inexplicably, violence seems to be ramping up again. It’s nowhere near the bad old days, but it’s getting worse, or at least creating the fear of getting worse, and guess who is feeling the brunt of this increase in violence? There are still no gunfights in the streets on Sutton Place.
Mr. Adams, a 22-year veteran of the N.Y.P.D., has a public safety plan centered on hiring, training and deploying police differently. He wants to create a new version of the department’s plainclothes unit to target illegal guns, surge officers into high-crime neighborhoods, and reassign 500 cops who currently do work that could be handled by civilians.
If you’re worried about whether you (or your kids) will survive a trip outside, then more cops may be your preferred solution. Sure, they don’t do much to help, and can do a lot to hurt, but so too do the folks committing violent crime.
[Wiley’s] plan calls for “a radical reimagining of policing” that includes freezing incoming classes of cadets for two years, thereby reducing the N.Y.P.D. head count by 2,500 officers; creating a civilian commission to oversee the N.Y.P.D.; overhauling the Patrol Guide and removing cops from mental health crisis cases, traffic enforcement and school safety.
If the people in black and Hispanic neighborhoods are experiencing over- and under-policing at the same time, which approach will be better?
All of these ideas should receive scrutiny and debate, because if one of these candidates wins, the N.Y.P.D. could become a laboratory of sorts for policing reforms and practices.
One of the most frustrating things for people of good will is that they want to help, find good fixes to bad problems, and learn that there are no magic bullets. If the old ways didn’t work, then we need to find new ways, but that doesn’t mean a “radical reimagining” will be any better, and could well be far worse. The problem with turning NYC into a laboratory is that nobody wants to be the test rat murdered on 168th Street because there were no cops in sight or because some cop didn’t like their attitude.
Whoever wins the Dem nomination for mayor will have a lot to prove. I wish them luck, as the task ahead won’t be easy and the only certainty is that whatever they decide, it will likely fall short of expectations and demands.