Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos

New York City vs. Guns: A Conversation With Eric Adams

Vital City

September 27, 2023

The mayor talks about the progress made and the distance yet to go.

The mayor talks about the progress made and the distance yet to go.

Vital City · 30 Minutes with Eric Adams

Eric Adams, a former police captain, ran for mayor of New York City in 2021 on the promise to drive down crime, which had surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s not what happened in his first year in office: Overall crime rose 22%, while murders fell by 26% and shootings incidents dropped 17%. In 2023, those basic trends to some extent continued. In the year to date, murders are down 10% and shooting incidents are down 26%. Still, overall crime is flat, due in part to a 19% increase in car thefts, while felony assaults have risen 5% year over year. The city has much more violent and property crime than it did two years ago (25% more felony assault, 32% more robbery, 19% more burglary, 43% more grand larceny), and the spike is starker still in comparison to 2019.

Adams’ initial stated focus was on decisively reining in gun violence, a task at which, according to the data, his administration has been succeeding. But serious questions swirl about how he; his deputy mayor for public safety, Philip Banks III; and the NYPD are deploying and directing cops as they pursue further reductions in homicides, shootings and overall crime. Adams’ most prominent policing tool has been dispatching Neighborhood Safety Teams to seize illegal firearms in 30 high-crime neighborhoods. The federal monitor of the department’s stop-and-frisk practice, Mylan Denerstein, released a report asserting that 24% of the teams’ stops were unconstitutional — and 97% were of men of color. A report in The City revealed that, under Adams, the NYPD has been issuing four times the criminal summonses per month for quality-of-life offenses such as violating open container laws and public urination as it did early last year, despite a City Council law steering cops to issue civil summonses instead; the Neighborhood Safety Teams have played a significant role in that shift.

Meanwhile, an Adams Gun Violence Prevention Task Force in late July released its “Blueprint for Community Safety,” laying out a strategy for stopping gun violence from happening in the first place via coordinated investments in violence interruption, mental health, housing, community vitality, employment and enhanced police-community relations.

In September, we talked with Adams to better understand his policing philosophy, his management style and the lessons he believes he is learning about public safety 20 months into the job. Both our questions and his answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Credit: Arthur Mount

Vital City: We’ve seen year-over-year declines of 10% in murder and 26% in shooting incidents. To what do you attribute those drops? And second, why, while those are declining, are other things declining less or even increasing, particularly felony assault and misdemeanor assault? You don’t often see that kind of divergence.

Eric Adams: Well, first, one shooting, homicide or robbery is too many, but you use indicators to do an overall analysis in a city of this size, with 8.3 million people. And coming out of COVID, there’s still a lot of mental health issues that are facing the city and the country. We zeroed in on the homicides, the shootings and the overproliferation of guns; that was our No. 1 focus. And we did a combination of the subway safety plan with the governor. And then, what we did was take a holistic approach to dealing with crime. We saw increases among young people, and so, with our summer safety plan, No. 1 — and No. 2, looking at those particular target areas, we wanted to make sure we could do things with young people that I don’t believe we focused on before with prevention. That’s why we did the Summer Rising program, more Summer Youth Employment and the summer nights basketball program, all of those things. We said we had to catch young people before they committed crimes while we go after those who we knew had a potential for criminal behavior.

Now, to deal specifically with assaults: The increases were not in all categories. Five out of seven, we saw decreases. We saw slight increases in assault, but the major pain in the rear were grand larceny autos, and that is why we rolled out, last week, a specific plan that I had the police commissioner design for us to go after those GLAs.

VC: Neighborhood Safety Teams were rolled out in 30 parts of the city with high gun violence primarily to drive that gun violence down. Not long ago, the federal stop-and-frisk monitor said many of their stops are likely unlawful. And a report in The City pointed to a sharp rise in criminal summonses for many quality-of-life offenses and said the NSTs may be responsible for a lot of those. Can you talk about what those teams are doing and on what basis they make the stops that they make?

EA: I saw someone wrote that summonses are up, arrests are up; but what they don’t show, the flip side of that, is shootings are down, homicides are down. And so there is a real balance to safety and justice that must be carried out — something that I believed in, something that I lived on throughout my entire career. When you go into these communities, when I do my local town halls, when I speak to my seniors, they are yelling about quality of life issues. Illegal mopeds, illegal scooters, noise complaints, illegal vending, all of these things that everyday New Yorkers are saying. “We don’t want the erosion of our quality of life in our streets. We don’t want the prostitutes.” On Roosevelt Avenue, we’ve identified almost 57 brothels. And so, police are responding to the concerns of their constituencies. The 311 complaints tell us what people are complaining about.

Now, either we can say, “well, we’re going to just ignore those complaints,” or “we are going to go in and make sure we do warnings on many occasions first, then we’re going to take action that people are ignoring the quality of life of everyday New Yorkers.” No one wants someone sitting outside their house, injecting themselves with drugs. That’s not what people want.

VC: What’s the explanation for why a criminal summons versus a civil summons? In some cases you have a clear justification where they have previous unpaid summonses or a warrant out for their arrest, but if there isn’t, what’s the justification for say, public urination or public drinking of alcohol for that to trigger a criminal summons? Neighborhood Safety Teams were targeted to neighborhoods of color bearing the brunt of violence. So if they’re a major tool implementing quality of life enforcement, aren’t you going to get Black and brown people targeted by those criminal summonses?

‘We shouldn’t be issuing a criminal court summons if we could do a civil court summons. We’re not trying to give people criminal records, but we are trying to do what we should be doing, that’s correcting conditions.'

EA: Well, they’re not the major tool. Every police officer in every part of the city is told to look at those 311 complaints and respond according to what the constituencies are asking for. Go out in Queens, 109th Precinct, and you’re seeing actions out there, and so the goal is to go where the crimes are. Precincts in the Bronx were dealing with a substantial number of shooters. It would be wrong for me to take the body that we have created to go after the guns and deal with those shootings and move them to a community that’s not dealing with shootings. And so I don’t believe — and we’ll do a deep-dive analysis — I don’t believe that a disproportionate number of those summonses are coming from the Neighborhood Safety Teams. I think all the police officers are doing their job, and that’s working to deal with the quality of life offenses. And we shouldn’t be issuing a criminal court summons if we could do a civil court summons.

We’re not trying to give people criminal records, but we are trying to do what we should be doing, that’s correcting conditions.

VC: Your Gun Violence Prevention Task Force put out a big report recently. I know that you believe in Cure Violence and other violence interruption models. Can you explain how these are overseen and what the accountability mechanisms are? Relatedly, I know that this whole Crisis Management System portfolio was moved from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to the Department of Youth and Community Development, which means that it’s under First Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright. Can you explain why that is the right management choice, given that Phil Banks is supposed to be the one kind of knitting together all of the different agency responses to ensure that they’re coordinated intelligently to prevent violence?

EA: Well, it was the right thing to do because it was part of the overall plan of prevention. Because what our crisis management teams were doing previously, they were responding after an incident and trying to prevent retaliatory actions. That was not the right way to do it. And so when you look at Operation Pivot, which is now in New York City public schools, and then you look at what our DYCD is doing, everything from the summer youth jobs, to the Summer Rising program, to training all our teachers in things like dyslexia to prevent crime. All the things that we’re doing dealing with our youth are part of DYCD and should fall under the partnership we made with Gun Violence Prevention Czar A.T. Mitchell and the first deputy mayor. This is the first deputy mayor that’s now wrapping our hands around the initiative of how we can be more preventive, investing in foster care children who fall through the system and so on.

And so we knew we had to bring this to the top of the food chain and partner with the crisis management teams, redefine their mission to be more proactive and not reactive as they have been in the past.

VC: But is it fair to say that the deputy mayor for public safety is ultimately in charge of weaving together both the policing and the prevention, or is it just the policing?

EA: No, he has Police and Probation, the FDNY, the Department of Correction, Parks Police, the sheriffs. All of that falls under his portfolio. I think that the hallmark of this administration is that we don’t operate in silos. The mere fact that this went under DYCD does not mean that Deputy Mayor Banks does not sit down with First Deputy Mayor Wright, as part of those overall conversations on how we utilize the Police Department. He oversees and coordinates. Now the Police Department is meeting with our superintendents and principals — this has never been done before. So the team comes together; because it fits under Sheena’s portfolio does not mean that she’s not engaged with Deputy Mayor Banks.

VC: In the campaign, you and I talked about data-driven decision-making and dashboards and all of those things. How do you know what’s working? What’s not yielding the intended results? What’s worth doubling down on? What’s worth scrapping?

EA: Yeah. Well, I think that that’s the purpose of having a dashboard. That’s the purpose of having what I like to say is a cockpit like the pilot has, so you can see what’s effective and what’s not. One of the perfect examples: You covered the city, you saw the overproliferation of encampments all over the city. And if one is honest right now about that, you don’t see it anymore. And when you do identify it, it is immediately rectified within a short period of time. That’s because we have a series of dashboards that allows us to identify if there’s an encampment, who responded, how we correct it, and we can look at that and do an analysis. Every week we analyze each one of these dashboards; they don’t just sit out there in the universe. If you didn’t have those dashboards, those spreadsheets, all of this technology that we can review so that we’re making sure we’re getting the product we want, then we would go days after days not knowing what part we must adjust and what part we must change to get it right.

VC: Here’s another way to put the same question. What is on your dashboard that’s not on dashboards and datasets that the public can see? What are you looking at that helps inform your decisions as an executive about what you want to lean into and what you want to turn away from?

In places where you’re doing Cure Violence, and you’re doing Neighborhood Safety Teams, and you’re using five, six, seven other tools. How do we know which ones are yielding dividends and which ones are kind of dead-ends? Because not everything works. Right?

EA: No. No, it doesn’t.

VC: Sometimes very well-intended tools don’t work. So how do you figure out which well-intended tools are not working and which well-intended tools are working and deserve a lot more investment?

EA: Now, if you’re asking me what I am seeing that the public’s not seeing, I’m going to say, “nothing.” If you’re asking what tools I use to determine if something is successful or not, then I will point to the Police Department already having a report that they put out showing where precincts have increases in these various crimes, from homicide, to grand larceny auto, to shootings. That’s already done.

And so if I say I want to put in a plan of having 110,000 in Summer Youth Employment, I can monitor: Did we reach that target? And if we didn’t, why didn’t we reach that target? If I want to look at how many children or how we are increasing the number of children that are in school, I can look at and break down which schools we didn’t reach the target of maintaining the number of children that go to school. So all of these it’s not so much the tools used to maintain them, it is looking at those tools and pinpointing where we’ve fallen short.

‘Someone has to go after the guns. Someone has to go after the gangs. It’s a combination of intervention and prevention.’

VC: You talk a lot about upstream-downstream, particularly in public safety, and your task force put out that “Blueprint for Community Safety.” Here’s a little thought experiment. If policing had stayed exactly the same as it was before you became the mayor, but all of the other things that are talked about in that blueprint had gone whole hog, what kind of crime decline would we be seeing?

EA: That’s a great question. I don’t recall exactly what book I read, but we don’t judge the non-shooting. We judge the shooting. And all the experts will tell you across the country, if not the globe, how challenging it is to say, “Okay, Eric, you did dyslexia screening for every child in the Department of Education, something that was never done before in history. How much of an impact did it stop those 30% to 40% of people on Rikers Island who are dyslexic?”

What we do know is that we created a subway safety plan, and crime has dropped in the subway system at historical lows. We know we created a summer safety plan. We’re watching young people not being victims and participating in crime.

You cannot say, “Let’s remove police from the equation and just let these upstream initiatives happen, and you’re going to deal with the crisis.” Because someone has to respond to the shooters. Someone has to go after the guns. Someone has to go after the gangs. It’s a combination of intervention and prevention, a term that I use over and over again. You get that combination right, you’re going to get the results you’re looking for.

VC: When you were a cop and a police captain, I’m sure you came to very strong conclusions about how to reduce gun violence. How has your view of gun violence and how to reduce it changed from when you were Police Officer and Captain Eric Adams to today, now that you’re Mayor Eric Adams?

EA: It hasn’t changed much because the fundamentals are still the same. I knew that we were not doing enough prevention work while I was policing. I took note of that, because we can’t just police our way out of it. I also was very strong on: If you carried a gun and used a gun, you should be incarcerated for that.

I have been extremely vociferous about laws that don’t hold people accountable for carrying guns. My beliefs are the same in that area. And I also believe in community policing, and people should be in the community hearing from the residents.

So the difference between being Police Officer Eric Adams and Mayor Eric Adams is that I did not have to wait for other people to make the decisions that I felt strongly about. I’m able to implement policies that are going to do what I saw in the world of policing. These are the things I believe in, and now I’m able to actualize them.

VC: You used to carry a weapon yourself obviously as an officer and then as an off-duty officer. What would you say to the young men like those in a recent Center for Justice Innovation study who said they carried guns to protect themselves from “the opps” and the cops? How would you dissuade them from carrying?

EA: First of all, it’s not acceptable. And I even hear elected officials from time to time saying, “Well, the reason children carry guns is to protect themselves.” We should never surrender to that mindset and that concept. The first thing I would do is more than talking, I think that young people need visuals.

I would sit down and show them a series of something that we’re putting together now, a series of victims of shooters. I would have them spend time, as one doctor did in Kings County, of going to the emergency room and seeing what happens when a young person is shot, seeing some of these funerals. I spoke at a funeral about a year or so ago of a young man who — he died, and his family members were all in disarray and crying. But that same young man was part of the shootings.

So I think we need to have these conversations in a real way, but we also need to show our young people what gun violence is. Because we romanticize it everywhere from social media, to movies, to television. And so that impact on the development of a young mind makes it seem as though, hey, you could just go to the next week, the next episode. But it’s real, and I believe it needs to be more than just a conversation. We need to display it.

VC: Can you cite any policing policies, programs, practices that you want to try, but you haven’t tried yet, to drive down gun violence in particular? And I’ll just throw out one, but please don’t overly focus on this one: There was talk about scanners in the subway entrances. Are there things that you’re interested in, either as a pilot or as a broader program?

EA: Yes. Everything is viewed through the prism of intervention and prevention. It is not just intervention, but you alluded to scanners. There’s new technology out there. Those were some of the things that I was looking at when I was in Israel, which is really “startup nation.” They said that for a reason, because of their technology.

There are a lot of advancements in really seeing if someone is hiding a gun on their person, carrying a gun onto a subway system and things like that. We have a major group that we meet with once a month of all of our security leaders in our major corporate firms, and they’re part of this security advisory. They are using some of these tools now. We want to make sure that it’s 100% safe, and it 100% doesn’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights.

‘We need good, great detectives. We have a police force that is hurting in population. A large number of men and women are going to other police departments, or don’t want to stay in a policing career. We’re hemorrhaging.’

Now it becomes complicated with the Supreme Court decision. We’ve created an environment now where everyone has basically the right to carry a gun, and that is going to be a real challenge for law enforcement agencies across the globe.

But I want to see technology used more. I don’t think we use it enough. And then, I want to use technology of making it safer to own a gun. There’s some clear biometrics that you can use that makes sure a gun is not discharged if the licensed person is not holding it — fingerprint technology.

So I would like to see biometrics used more, and I would like to see other technologies, so we don’t have this misuse of guns in our city.

VC: This city is safer than most, but as you know well we have very, very concentrated violence in particular communities. And it happens that the same communities that were often the most strongly opposed to Bloomberg’s style of stop-and-frisk are the ones that suffer from underpolicing sometimes. How do you square that circle to get them the policing that they need, while not risking that pernicious overpolicing that we’ve seen in this city at times?

EA: That’s a good question, and that’s what we have accomplished. Many people who talk about stop, question and frisk — a constitutional authority that police departments have — people often miss the question part of it.

If you remove that constitutional authority away from police, you are making those communities more dangerous. The police must have the right to do a preliminary investigation that they believe someone is about to commit a crime.

But we have to send a strong message that is not going to be used as an indicator of if you are a good police officer or not. That’s what we did in the past. We judged police by how many of those stop, question and frisks they conducted every night.

We remove those incentives, and I’m on the ground in precincts talking to police officers as the mayor of the city saying, “We are not going out and abusing our authority to fight crime. That can’t happen.”

If you call someone and state, “Someone is on my stoop, and I believe they put a gun in their waistband.” And if police officers are not allowed to come and conduct a review or an investigation, we’re endangering your family, and we’re endangering our community, and that’s not going to happen in this administration.

VC: Last thing: clearance rates. Number one, they’re lower than they used to be. They’ve come up a bit over the last year, but they’re still too low. What’s your strategy for driving up clearance rates? What is the key to doing that?

EA: Good detectives. We need good, great detectives. We have a police force that is hurting in population. A large number of men and women are going to other police departments, or don’t want to stay in a policing career. We’re hemorrhaging. Many people don’t realize that we have a law enforcement crisis in our country.

We have a criminal justice crisis. When you speak to the DAs, they’ll tell you the same thing: They can’t get DAs, they can’t get lawyers. When you speak to the Department of Correction, they can’t get correction officers. Probation can’t get probation officers. And that’s the same thing with police.

We are hemorrhaging police, and we can’t just overpopulate the detective division and leave out those everyday men and women who are on patrol doing their job. The detective ranks are suffering right now. I spoke with the president of the detective union, as we look at ways to make it more attractive. But our clearance rates — the numbers are steady, and we are doing a job in clearing a lot of these homicide cases, and we’re going to continue to do so. But we are having a real manpower problem in policing.

And this is something that all of my mayors are sharing with me across the country.