As an NYPD captain who formed 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care in 1993, Eric Adams was known as a deliberate provocateur, with political ambitions. Cultivating a public image as a critic of racist abuse in the police department, he won a state senator’s seat in 2003 and became Brooklyn borough president in 2016. But as Adams’s mayoral campaign evolved over the past year, he became an unlikely law-and-order candidate. He endorsed restocking the depleted ranks of NYPD officers and reinstating the department’s undercover anti-crime unit, closed by his predecessor Bill de Blasio, and he stressed the need to combat subway crime, make Times Square safe again, and reduce gang-related shootings.
Which Eric Adams did New Yorkers just elect? As he prepares to take office, his policy platform still seems split. Adams surged to victory by supporting traditional policing, but he never dispensed entirely with his old image. In June, after winning the mayoral primary, Adams visited Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Harlem. Standing alongside Alvin Bragg, the incoming Manhattan district attorney, Adams said: “You may look at our new district attorney and his concepts of how he wants to use that office to deal with public safety, to deal with crime. It’s no different than mine.” Yet Bragg won on a highly progressive platform advocating a prosecutorial focus on “racial equity” that embraces non-prosecution, minimizing detention in favor of decarceration and decriminalization. These policies would seem to conflict with Adams’s tough-on-crime stance.
If Adams is to deliver on both his campaign promises—ensuring a robust criminal-justice system while reducing the disproportionately large presence of black New Yorkers in it—then he will have to pursue each goal individually. Allowing social programs to take the place of a serious crime-fighting policy is a strategy doomed to fail, one that ignores the reality that order and opportunity are complementary, not contradictory, goals.
Adams appears to understand that factors other than racist policing or overly muscular prosecution contribute to worse outcomes among blacks. “Education, not incarceration” has been an Adams mantra when discussing criminal justice and race. But education is not itself a criminal-justice policy; it happens upstream of crime and punishment. Other policies, such as job preparedness, early intervention for mental illness, and opportunities to reside outside of crime-prone housing projects can help steer black youth away from the criminal-justice system. But they, too, are no substitute for policing and prosecution.
Adams should understand that his education-not-incarceration slogan will be meaningless if crime prevents children from participating in school in the first place. No city can succeed when runaway lawlessness makes kids scared to walk home, prevents businesses from succeeding, and leads to mounting retaliatory gang shootings—to say nothing of how violent, or at least disorderly, behavior often spills into schools themselves.
This means that Adams should take crime seriously, even if some of his colleagues have other ideas. Though Albany and the five boroughs’ district attorneys control what happens in the courts, some of their proposals could undermine the incoming mayor’s administration. Bragg’s plans to decline prosecution of “low-level” offenses—including resisting arrest, trespassing, fare evasion, driving with a suspended license, and traffic violations—could create an atmosphere of permissiveness that emboldens criminal offenders. Bragg has also said that he wants to avoid imposing jail time in gun-possession cases, especially for young offenders. Such a policy would reduce the deterrent to carrying a weapon and risk deadly consequences.
Violent crime is a terrifying preoccupation for New Yorkers, especially black ones. Blacks make up roughly one-fifth of city residents, but they are wildly overrepresented as both perpetrators—in 2020, 63 percent of homicide suspects and 72 percent of shooting suspects—and victims. And thus, they are disproportionately jailed, prosecuted, and questioned for crimes.
Eric Adams can do something about this reality. He can continue programs that encourage rigorous paths toward productive, stable lives, while supporting an accountable, intelligent, and well-manned police department. He can support equal opportunity by reaffirming the rule of law. And he can stand up for all New Yorkers by demonstrating that crime doesn’t pay.
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