Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams joins Seth Barron to discuss the coronavirus outbreak, as well as New York City’s looming fiscal crisis, how to address homelessness, the future of the Rikers Island jail, social-distancing enforcement, and more.

With more than 45,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, Brooklyn is one of the hardest-hit sections of the hardest-hit city in the United States. As president of the borough, Adams has responded to the pandemic with initiatives such as distributing personal protective equipment to NYCHA residents and calling for oversight on the handling of coronavirus victims’ bodies. Once the acute phase of the crisis passes, Brooklyn, like the rest of New York, will face a long road to recovery.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Hello and welcome to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. I'm associate editor, Seth Barron, your host for today's episode. We're joined by a special guest, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Eric Adams served for more than 20 years as a New York City police officer, was elected to the state senate where he served four terms, is currently in his second term as president of the borough of churches, and is also a candidate for the mayoral election to take place next year. This interview was recorded last week and there have been some developments since then, including the planned shutdown of the New York City subway system every night, which was anticpated in our interview. Now, my discussion with Eric Adams.

Eric Adams: You know, I don't know how long it takes to walk 10 blocks nowadays because there are no crowds out there.

Seth Barron: That's a good point. Well we make it like 20 blocks, 15 blocks.

How are you doing, Borough President, with the lockdown?

Eric Adams: Good. I think that the city divided its human capital into essential and non-essential employees. I consider myself as an essential employee. I find it challenging to tell police officers to patrol and train operators to drive the trains and others to do a job and, and I'm home. So for the last 40 plus I have been sleeping out of Borough Hall and doing the things that I believe essential employees are supposed to do and that's to get reinforcement to those who are on the ground.

Seth Barron: Wow. You're sleeping in your office. Do you have a cot?

Eric Adams: Yes, I have a cot in the shower and a few dumbbells and I've learned to use the stairs as my Stairmaster. I run up and down to the third, fourth floor a few times. It's a great workout.

Seth Barron: Well, it sounds like you're a model civic official. Let me ask you, Borough President, New York City is facing a catastrophic fiscal outlook. Our budget could take a huge hit, maybe $10 to $15 billion in lost revenue over the next 18 months. And there's different, there's different voices about how this should be addressed. Some people say it has to be on the revenue side. Albany needs to step up and increase taxes. Other people say, well, the city budget has really ballooned in the last eight years. Maybe we need to cut back. What are your thoughts on this?

Eric Adams: I believe it's a combination of, number one, we need real help on the federal level. We can't get away from that, but I also believe we need to look at what we have been doing for many years. Clearly you go back after 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg was hit with about over $4 billion, around $4.8 billion budget deficit. And he went to the real estate community to raise taxes. And then in 2008 we went through a very hard financial crisis and again, he hit the real estate community. And I don't think that if we have a predicted $6 billion budget deficit according to the state controller and it could be anywhere between six to 10 billion e cannot continue to go to the same sources that we've done. We really overtaxed real estate industry throughout two years and we need to look at alternate a method to raise cash and raise revenue.

One, I believe that we need to look at our own budget. I think there should be a 4% cut across all agencies and then we have to run our city better. I said this over and over again, long before coronavirus that we are hemorrhaging money in this city because of the dysfunctionality of running our city agencies. We are in a conflict with each other and we continue to pay over the course on too many consultants or how much money we spend on consultants in the city. I think that we have to really take a close look on how we run the city in a more efficient fashion.

Seth Barron: Well, what do you think about the proposal to institute a wage freeze across all municipal employees? Mayor de Blasio negotiated a fairly generous pattern of contracts when he first came in, including retroactive raises for the teachers, some of which hasn't even been paid off yet. So basically next year we're supposed to pay out, I don't know, half a billion or a billion dollars on work that was performed 10 or 12 years ago. In such a major emergency, the city could freeze, put a halt on these payments. What's your opinion about all of that?

Eric Adams: No, I don't support that at all. I think the heart and soul of this cityis the middle class. When you look at what we have done, particularly to property owners, and I'm not talking about those who have hundreds and thousands of apartments, I'm talking about the single family house one and two and three family households. The taxes in comparison to outside the city where you have tax caps. Our taxes have gone up astronomically. Cost of living has also increased astronomically and the everyday civil servant is the heart and soul of this city. And as we saw during this crisis, are they on the front line? And that is the essential employee for the most heart. And so I don't support doing anything that's going to hurt the middle class. We decimate the middle class in this city, in this country. We need to start thinking about how do we really stabilize the middle class and make sure that they're able to continue to stabilize the city. So I don't support a wage freeze at all.

Seth Barron: Fair enough. What about the idea of reassigning workers? For instance, right now, you know, there are thousands of school safety agents basically as far as I can tell, aren't doing very much. Would you support asking them to work as contact tracers or in some other function that might, you know, that the city might need right now?

Eric Adams: Without a doubt. And not only that, we can't be "just a," and what I mean by just a, we can't be just a school search, a safety employee or agent as their core, just a sanitation employee. We have to now step outside of those traditional roles and redefine them as we redefine the city. For example of the department of the department of education had to give out 300,000 iPads and they had a contract through Federal Express and DHL to distribute them. They still have not distributed all of them to low-income students. Almost 55,000 have yet to be delivered. We could have done a better job by breaking down the delivery by precinct allowing our present community affairs officers and youth coordinators to actually identify the students in those areas. And go and deliver those iPads to those students, keeping account of what they're receiving, making sure that they were online.

Right now we don't have a real accounting of the attendance record of our students. They can play a more vital role in many of these roles that our civil service are playing. Some of them are eager to do more and to get more involved in improving the city, but we are restraining them from doing so. And I think we need to be more creative and not just put people in one category and it allowed them to go beyond what they're doing now. Even our teachers look at out teachers. I sent many of our teachers away to learn yoga, mindfulness and, and to deal with stress. We can do a better job of now schools if we empower our teachers to deal with some of the mental health crises that are impacting us. So all of us have to do more and go beyond the traditional roles that we are assigned to.

Seth Barron: I didn't mention this at the beginning, but you are in the running to become the next mayor of the city and a crucial aspect of the city is its businesses and particularly its small businesses which are being hammered currently with the lockdown. What do you see as the future of small business in the city? How, how can we come back and what would you do to, to help small businesses?

Eric Adams: And that's a real question of when you look at the number one thing my small businesses are stating, whenever I communicate with them either through a walkthrough or through various forums that we've held, they say the same thing. The city has no business being in their business. The city is in the way of development of our businesses, either through taxation, through citations the lack of access to given our businesses of many ways of not being able to grow the bureaucracy, trying to navigate everything from the department of building to getting a basic permit to open a, when you really examine what the city is doing, you question how do we go from being the empire state to those places that we destroy empires. When you see the expansion of and the lack of expansion of our businesses, the challenges they have of navigating the bureaucracy.

That's the number one thing I hear from my business community is that the challenge of doing business in this city, when you do a comparison of doing a development, the development to housing project in a place like Maryland and look at the dollar amount and then compare it with doing a developmental project here in Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan, or you'll see the cost difference of just how costly it is to do business in the city. And it's because of too much regulations and too much of agencies that are in the way of seeing the development of businesses that you see it on every level and it hurts when you have to spend a year just to get the permit or just to get a utility company to turn on your water and gas and your restaurant owner that you are not hiring a cook a dishwasher or low skill or under skilled employee. And we do a terrible job of being business friendly in the city and we can't continue to do that as we are, as we evolve post Corona virus because the business community is going to change. Some of our businesses are not going to be open and we have to reshape how we do business in the city.

Seth Barron: Well, welcome words, welcome words. Another major institution in New York city is the subways. And that's really the backbone of New York in terms of how people get to work and everything. It's like a defining feature. Well, right now the subways are in total crisis. Ridership is off 90, 95%. And disturbingly, it seems like the subways have become the no tacitly become kind of an overflow annex for the homelessness service complex. The subways are filled right now with homeless people are just living there probably because they don't want to go to shelters. How do we rescue the subways? How do we deal with the homelessness crisis? I know that's two major problems, but they really seem to have collided. Now how can we bring the subways back, make them safe, and get the homeless off the subways and into shelter or somewhere else?

Eric Adams: I'm truly concerned about the city, and I stated this pre-coronavirus. I'm seeing something that is extremely frightening of what is happening to our city. The prerequisite to prosperity is public safety. People come to the city and they build and they open businesses and they raise families because what the city has to offer, how safe it is. And I think far too many people are making decisions that they will not here. When we were having 2000 homicides a year in the early eighties and almost 98,000 robberies and every car had a no radio sign posted on his window show. And we were living in a state of fear at that time. I was a transit cop. I wrote the subway systems from eight at night to four in the morning and graffiti was everywhere. Crime was everywhere. And we labored hard with people like Jack maple and bill Bratton and others and use comstat and other technology to turn around our city and real time crime fighters.

Many people forgot that. And when you see the lax on, we don't need police officers in the subway. When you hear calls about people in mass numbers jumping the turnstile and putting glue in the turnstile, a total this this array that is in front of us right now. And it didn't happen because the coronavirus, there was a slippage that was taking place repeatedly over the years. And we need to be very conscious of that. You do not fix a window to rebreak it. And I believe what we need to do is ensure that number one, our shelters are clean and safe. They cannot be extension of Oh dormitories in a presence. I was the ranking crime and correction committee a person when I was in the state Senate and I've visited many of our original facilities and I saw that don't add atmosphere.

That's what you see in our shelters. Now then there must be a pathway to permanent housing. And you do that by doing things such as micro units giving people there are the necessary support when they get out. You have different type of homeless. The ones you see on the subway are homeless, homeless men and women with mental health issues. And some of them, if you put them on the proper medication, they are able to really hold down a normal lifestyle. But you need to give them the counseling that they, that they deserve. And also we have to be honest about what we did several years ago by closing many of our mental health institutions. The advocates basically stated Kohl's the living mental Institute to help institutions without insurance that we gave support on the outside. And many of these people you see on the street now living on the subway talking to themselves, some of violent like we saw in Chinatown before individuals were killed. We have be extremely honest. There's some people that are not capable of to live without round the clock attention around the clock care. And that is who we see on our subway system. And we have to have a new discussion about using a modern day state of the art humane ways of putting people in psychiatric centers where they are getting the proper care and treatment that they don't harm themselves and harm others.

Seth Barron: I mean, even short of actually committing people to psychiatric centers. New York state has a very robust assisted outpatient therapy law. Kendra's law, which, you know, puts people under judges a watch to make sure that they're compliant with their medication and their treatment. Some people say that the current mayor has not actively sot the application of Kendra's law. What's your take on that?

Eric Adams: Not enough. There's a level of reluctancy. And Kendra's law is a good law because it allows is it allows officials to ensure that a person is taking their medication making sure that they are not harming themselves and others. I don't think we applied enough. I think there's a level of reluctancy in the application of it. This hands off attitude is the wrong attitude because when people reach a point of which we would call it violent EDP, by filing an emotionally disturbed person, they could be dangerous, dangerous to themselves and dangerous to, to, to others. And so I think that we need to send a clear message to our law enforcement in other officials of that you will not be any way penalized for full use of Kendra's law is a very good law and we need to use it accordingly.

Seth Barron: So regarding crime, which you alluded to and you know, as a former officer, it's great to hear your perspective on this and as a transit officer, but the current numbers are alarming. A murderer is up, transit crime is up, which, you know, given the fact that ridership is so, so low, it really shouldn't be up. But at the same time, the city has released 1500 people from Rikers Island you know, just set them out on the street. Do you think there's a relation there? And was that really the right thing to do?

Eric Adams: Predatory crimes, rape, robbery, burglary, homicide, manslaughter, those series of seven categories of predatory crime. I'm extremely hard on making sure people who commit predatory crime should be incarcerated. When we did the new bail reform and you looked at the items that were on the list, it was clear that there were items on the list that you could not post bail or should not have been there, such as burglary, a burglary of a dwelling. You know, imagine of burglarizing a home one and two, three homes on a block, cereal burglary. And the judge is unable to give them bail because they did not harm anyone inside. Maybe they didn't get a chance to do so or so. So carrying a weapon on school grounds. All of those crimes should not be part of the no bail reform. I thought it was a big mistake and I think that we need to, we asked that we, we considered some of the crimes that were on the list and then when you look at the release of the large number of inmates that were, that were on Riker's Island, I believe that anyone that was found, Oh, it was on the Island because they were serving out of their year, years time because it'd be violent act. They should serve out that time. If they're there for a minor technical, a parole violation, I don't think there was a reason for them to be there. And if it's a nonviolent act, I don't think it was a reason for them to be there because it was very important that we dealt with the Corona virus spread that was there. I think it was extremely negligent negligence on the part of the city that we didn't allow our correction officers to have personal protection equipment. They had to Sue to get it. We had to keep in mind that those men and women that were on Rikers Island was put in harm's way and that we could decrease the prison population without causing any a safety problem. I was in support of that.

Seth Barron: Let me ask you about the future of Rikers Island, which you know, until a few months ago it sounded as though there was no question that the city was closing Rikers Island and we were going to build new borough based jails. Okay. But given the current fiscal outlook, it's sort of seems like maybe that's not going to be a top priority. What's your opinion about about the future of Rikers Island? Should we reconsider and just build if we re, I mean there's plenty of space there if we want to have Mmm, nice new jails, we could just build them there. Do you have an opinion on this?

Eric Adams: I think that everything is on the table of how do we close this fiscal gap, how do we close it around the areas of really dealing with the cost of education, the cuts we're seeing in healthcare. Everything is on the table. And I think it's imperative, Oh, that we reexamined on what we're going to do by building the borough based jails. I believe that was a great opportunity to transform Rikers Island into a new Mo model of correctional facilities to allow training, job training to kill the recidivism levels that we were experiencing. But to deal specifically, do we move on full steam ahead with the borough based jails? I think that needs to be part of the overall fiscal plan for the city on how do we pay for it, how do we make sure that we can continue to have the city be buyable if we move in that direction. I think that needs to be over open for conversation.

Seth Barron: So here we are. We've been in lockdown for six, seven weeks. I mean I've lost track now. It seems that the curve has flattened, you know, to a certain degree there's fewer infections and as the weather gets warmer, people want to go outside more. What's your take? You know, we're, we're looking at maybe different parts of the state. Different parts of the country are starting to move out of lockdown. At the same time, you know, New York city is really the worst hit. How are we going to negotiate this, this transition into moving the city out of lockdown? I mean, this is a major, a major issue. What's your take?

Eric Adams: It really is one thing's for sure. Our desire to ensure that we do not harm the city financially. Can I get in a way of harm our families? This is a real crisis. Two weeks ago I lost five friends in one week. One of them was rookie police officer that I trained and she died from coronavirus and I lost my mentor that talked me into politics, died of Corona virus. It just really speaks to the extreme of who we are losing. And I don't think that we're out of the woods yet. I believe that we're still in a very dangerous place. And every two weeks, I speak with my, the presidents of my hospitals and they are very fearful. Oh, that in October, November, a Corona virus is going to come back with a vengeance. And so we have to be extremely careful so we can get it right the first time and not have to sort of revert back.

We have to change how we do business. I think our office spaces our shopping habits all of us need to continue to practice social distancing. No, we're all frustrated that, you know, those who have been endorsed for a long period of time, but this is a new norm that we're going to have to start to address who, and I think we need to be extremely cautious and most importantly, we need to listen to the healthcare professionals. They know the answers and they should guide us through this. They should be the determining factors in should we return to as much of anonymous as possible. I don't think we should get in front of them. We have some great healthcare professionals, some great computer models that can show the spread of the virus. We need to do the testing that's needed to identify these hotspots.

Dr. Riley over at downstate hospital, which is the center of the epicenter. He has indicated that a manner in which we should be testing and what he's called these hotspots to the identify which zip codes are dealing with this issue the most. And make sure we get the resources there. We have to slow down and ensure that we don't continue to see the, any new infections right now. The curve appears to be flattened. If we move to a rapidly, we could we can cause it to not be flattened in the future. And I'm concerned about that.

Seth Barron: I was in Washington Square Park the other day. It was a beautiful day and there were a lot of people wandering around, you know, many of them wearing masks, you know, keeping some distance but not an enormous amount. And there was a, a, a patrol car going through making an announcement that the health department advises everyone too, you know, stay at home and practice social distancing. But no one was really paying attention to it. So as the weather gets warmer and if we open up more streets to pedestrian traffic, you know, even though the basketball hoops are down, the parks are closed, the pools and beaches are closed, people will be out and about. There's a fine line here. I mean some places like in China and Paris, they're very, the police are very strict and get involved. Do you think that we, that there's a public safety component here, how are we going to enforce compliance?

Eric Adams: And that's a great question. I am concerned about a heavy handed police approach because New York is different from China and I've been back and forth to China six or seven times and their mindset and how the people at the country, how they think is different from a New York, we value our freedom, we value our movement. And this is extremely challenging for New Yorkers to be told they what they could do and what they can't do is something that's at the heart and soul of what an American is like. But realistically we had a public safety crisis and it's unfortunate if we're honest with ourselves, this is only round one. We're going to be dealing with viruses and superbugs and this is really the future that's in front of us. Scientists have been talking about this for some time and so we need to start now building in the proper training of the proper education of the proper mannerism of how do we respond when we give in those directions.

It took too long to educate. New York is on what shelter in place or pause? The coordination was not there. I was in Canarsie part of Brooklyn when we were supposed to be sheltering in place and I stopped two young men who were playing basketball. I pulled over my car and I spoke with them and said, you guys supposed to supposed to be social distancing. And they said, what the hell is that? So we were talking in an echo chamber. Not everyone I would listen was listening to the debriefings from the president, the governor or the mayor. Not everyone gets their information the same way. And so we need to start the process now of really educating people and having a soft touch, reinforcing, communicating and letting people know of what it means to be prepared or not to have something, a pandemic of this magnitude.

I think now that we've gone through it and we continue to go through it now it's going to be easier to give some clear instruction if it's telling you you may be the same age as I, but I remember during these early late sixties and early seventies we used to get this, these sirens with a nuclear bomb. When we hear them with do a drill of going under our desk and getting the direction to the local shelter and we will use to it and that is where we are. We need to get used to life with the viruses that we make it in the future.

Seth Barron: Straight talk from a former cop, a borough president, Eric Adams. Thank you so much for joining us on 10 blocks. It was a pleasure. If you have any comments, you can leave them at iTunes or on Twitter at #10Blocks. Thank you, Borough President.

Eric Adams: Appreciate it. Appreciate you take care and be safe.

Seth Barron: You too.

Photo by spurekar via Flickr

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