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Mayor Adams must hold law enforcement accountable

By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director & Christopher Dunn Legal Director, Legal

The start of Eric Adams’ tenure as mayor raises troubling signs for law-enforcement accountability, in stark contrast to a dramatic episode from over two decades ago when our organization stood with him.

On April 19, 1999, an NYPD officer appeared at a City Council hearing to reveal the racial-profiling tactics of the department’s Street Crime Unit. Earlier that year, four white members of the unit had fired 41 shots and killed an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, as he stood inside the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. An already heated controversy about hyper-aggressive policing and racial profiling under then-Mayor Giuliani erupted. Fearful of retaliation, the officer was disguised and relied on others to read a statement and answer questions.

The person who arranged that appearance, who sat next to the officer and who relayed her opening statement and most of her answers was none other than Eric Adams. He was an NYPD lieutenant then and on his own time led an organization of Black officers who courageously were speaking out about police abuse and racial profiling.

Within an hour of the testimony, the officer — Yvette Walton, one of the few Black women who had served in the Street Crime Unit — learned she had been fired. Our organization then successfully represented her in a federal retaliation case. Adams was a central figure in the trial and testified on behalf of Walton. The trial revealed that the NYPD had been surveilling Adams and his group as they were speaking out about NYPD misconduct.

Fast-forward to 2022. Adams’ arrival as mayor should have prompted high hopes for police accountability. Yet just weeks after his inauguration, there are ominous signs.

In the first week, the mayor’s newly installed correction commissioner, who oversees violence-plagued Rikers Island, fired the department’s top internal investigator when she refused to “get rid of” 2,000 cases of alleged misconduct by correction officers. Dismissal of the investigator was a top priority for the officers’ union.

At the NYPD, Adams allowed his new deputy mayor for public safety, Philip Banks III, to be involved in the removal of the NYPD’s top internal misconduct investigator. Banks, who was not ultimately indicted, had resigned as NYPD chief of department in 2014 in the midst of a corruption probe; the official who oversaw that probe was the very same one just pushed out. The mayor should worry about even the appearance of impropriety.

These moves take on particular import given Adams’ commitment to more aggressive law enforcement.

The mayor plans to restore the NYPD’s “anti-crime” units, the direct descendants of the Street Crime Unit that killed Amadou Diallo, which symbolize the worst of abusive and racist policing for many New Yorkers. And at a time when New York State is appropriately limiting the use of solitary confinement, Adams says he will ramp up this inhumane practice at Rikers — he calls it “punitive segregation,” a terminology that is not reassuring. Again, the correction officers’ union demanded this change.

Adams has an opportunity now to address concerns about his administration’s commitment to accountability. He faces pivotal decisions in the coming weeks about two key aspects of accountability in New York City.

First, there is the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent agency that investigates police abuse of civilians. Fred Davie, who has led the review board since 2017 with an ironclad commitment to independent oversight, is resigning on Jan. 31. A second important part of the oversight structure is the NYPD’s inspector general, which has broad authority to investigate and report on police misconduct. Just before Adams was sworn into office, Philip Eure quietly departed from that position.

Adams must push for independent and robust oversight and leave these appointments to his agency commissioners without interference from unions or City Hall. He also must insist that the 2,000 open correction-misconduct cases be fully investigated. As for the review board, the City Council has joint authority over the appointment of the board’s chair and must ensure the new chair is fully independent of City Hall and committed to robust NYPD oversight.

The mayor should also support additional reforms to create a more robust system. These should include maximizing transparency in the notoriously opaque police and correction disciplinary systems, creating a clear and mandatory system of punishment, and moving the sole authority to make final disciplinary decisions from the NYPD commissioner to an entity independent of the police department and City Hall. (Last month, we released a report showing that only 2% of more than 180,000 allegations of police misconduct since 2000 resulted in discipline.)

Our organization was proud to stand with Lt. Adams in 1999. Two decades later, Mayor Adams must not wind the clock back to the ugly days of a hyperaggressive, racist and unaccountable police force.

This op-ed was originally published in the New York Daily News.

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