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The NYPD has resurrected its controversial anti-crime unit. Success will be determined by avoiding mistakes of the past

<i>Richard Harbus/Hulton Archive/Getty Images</i><br/>The Bronx vestibule where Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by members of New York City's elite 'street crime' unit.
Getty Images
Richard Harbus/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Bronx vestibule where Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by members of New York City's elite 'street crime' unit.

By Mark Morales and Peter Nickeas, CNN

In response to a wave of violence during his first month on the job — capped by a deadly attack on two police officers — New York City Mayor Eric Adams is resurrecting a controversial unit within the NYPD to help stem an increase in shootings, hoping that oversight and training will prevent the unit from the infamy that plagued it in years past.

The so-called anti-crime unit, which was disbanded in August 2020 following racial justice protests and unrest across the country, will be rebranded Neighborhood Safety Teams and will start patrolling high-crime neighborhoods in the next three weeks.

The unit and other similarly composed units have been marked by allegations of aggressive tactics and police brutality. High-profile shootings by plainclothes officers undermined the legitimacy and perception of both the unit and the notion of plainclothes policing in New York. But Adams, who made public safety a key part of his campaign for mayor and touted his history as an NYPD captain as evidence he’s uniquely suited for tackling crime, said better training and oversight will help the city keep the unit’s troubled lineage in its past.

“In doing this, we will avoid mistakes of the past,” Adams said at a press conference announcing a multi-layered plan for fighting crime that also includes investing in community violence prevention and intervention programs. “These officers will be identifiable as NYPD, they will have body cameras, and they will have enhanced training and oversight.”

New York City is not unique: Cities across the country have units of plainclothes officers assigned to high-risk policing efforts, and though their assignments vary by city, they’re similar in many ways. They’re usually identifiable, unlike undercovers. They’re typically in unmarked cars and not responsible for answering 911 calls, are assigned hours and locations depending on crime concerns, and their mandate is guns or other felony enforcement. And in other cities, they’re also associated with aggressive policing.

“I can’t imagine not having a group of officers, deputies, detectives that I can pull and use to prevent and combat a problem they may be having in a certain area,” said Florida’s Orange County Sheriff John W. Mina, who also served as Chief of the Orlando Police Department.

“Here we just had a series of shootings in an area that has been a challenge for years but we were able to divert resources because they’re not tied to just answering calls. And it works. It works. They make a lot of good cases, a lot of good arrests. Put a lot of bad people away to help solve the issue.”

Plainclothes officers have a checkered history

Critics are quick to point to a checkered history of plainclothes officers in New York — including the three high-profile deaths of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Eric Garner — and a reputation for aggressive policing and abuse of power.

The biggest problem with the anti-crime unit was the civilian complaints they racked up, said Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD detective sergeant and current professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“You’re going after people who’ve committed violent crimes, and firearms, you’re going to get that reaction because you’re not going to be right every time you jump out of the car,” Giacalone said. “That’s just the cost of doing business … If you’re involved in active policing, you’re going to get (complaints).”

Data provided by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the watchdog agency charged with oversight of the NYPD, show the unit garnered lots of complaints over the years. They had 430 complaints in 2019 and 428 in 2018, though the vast majority of those allegations were not proven, the data shows. Officials with CCRB have also said in the past that plainclothes officers were much harder to identify because they were sometimes not wearing badges or name tags and that would lead to unsubstantiated claims.

CCRB Executive Director Darius Charney, whose agency investigates racial profiling and biased policing allegations, said there must be real oversight for the unit to avoid problems that dogged this unit in the past.

“Unfortunately, in the past, the history shows us that these plainclothes officers were really some of the worst offenders when it came to abusive and discriminatory policing,” Charney said. “And I think a lot of that had to do with not only how they were trained or what incentives they were given, but also there was just really a lack of oversight and accountability for officers who did break the law or violate people’s rights.”

Cops selected will be ‘best fit for the unit’

Adams’ resurrection of this unit is part of his strategy to combat gun violence, which he announced earlier than planned after three weeks of high-profile incidents that was punctuated by the deadly shooting of two NYPD officers answering a domestic disturbance call last week. In all, five New York City Police officers have been shot in the first three weeks of the year.

The mayor’s plan calls for the new teams to be deployed to 30 of the city’s 77 precincts and housing units that are responsible for 80% of violence in the city.

The NYPD is vetting candidates for the teams now, Adams said.

“We’re going to make sure the 400 plus people that are in the pipeline to go into our new unit . . . that they’re the best fit for the unit,” Adams said.

“We must make sure we don’t continue to put dangerous people back on the street and continue the flow of guns in our cities,” Adams said during a speech, following the shooting of the two officers. “I’m going to get my cops to do their job. I need the rest of the country that are in positions of authority to do their job.”

Mina said that when he supervised teams in Orlando, he sought officers who could work with minimal supervision and showed they were productive with self-initiated activity.

“They’ve already put together cases, shown an aptitude for writing search warrants. Finding people with guns. Or recruiting (confidential informants),” he said.

Elite team was involved in the death of Diallo

The NYPD’s anti-crime unit existed for decades, and was staffed and directed at the precinct level, meant to respond to concerns within those boundaries and staffed by police officers familiar with the people and places in the precinct.

Promotion to NYPD’s detective squads typically ran through the anti-crime unit, though that’s not always the case in other cities. Promising or ambitious young officers with a few years working uniformed patrol — or those with older relatives or political connections on the job — would ask into NYPD anti-crime and work there for a couple years before doing 18 months or two years of detective work and earning a detective shield, Giacalone said

Once NYPD officers were selected for the anti-crime units, they were sent to training and worked their new assignment in plainclothes. They were expected to go after guns and people carrying them (referred to as “the gun police” by some residents), so they carried less equipment on their belts than uniformed officers and weren’t required to wear a uniform because of the expectation of getting into foot chases, Giacalone said.

While the NYPD had its precinct-level anti-crime units, the department also staffed a more elite “street crime” unit whose main focus was getting guns. They were also plainclothes and in unmarked cars. In 1999, four officers from that unit fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx home.

Diallo was struck 19 times and was killed. The officers, who were later acquitted of murder charges, said they confused his wallet for a gun. The entire unit was eventually disbanded in response to Diallo’s death, and the work they did became the responsibility of the anti-crime units which long operated at the precinct, borough and city levels.

‘Supervision is a good thing’

Controversy over the years, including drug and money related corruption scandals, led to changes and tighter supervision within plainclothes units. This happened as views on policing continued to evolve across the country and cities started seeing an influx of drugs, drug money, and street violence and police corruption related to both.

After the Diallo shooting, the NYPD’s anti-crime unit’s focus remained on guns and violence. Then, in June 2020, then NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced that he disbanded all levels of the anti-crime unit, sending roughly 200 members to the detective bureau and spreading others out to different units.

The move to disband the unit followed protests, in New York and across the country, over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Other cities, in the wake of protests, reexamined their staffing and the utility of proactive policing. But the move in New York was reversed within about two months, as shootings in New York City spiked following the protests. The teams returned as Public Safety Teams, working unmarked cars but in full uniform, city officials have said.

The NYPD’s teams were typically composed of three officers and a sergeant working shifts that extend into the evening or overnight. In other parts of policing, in other cities and in patrol, sergeants will typically oversee a larger number of officers, from six to 10. Part of the reason for greater supervision, Giacalone said, was to prevent corruption.

Mina, who worked in and supervised a similar unit in the Orlando Police Department and whose department now has a similar unit, said that more supervision in high-risk situations was beneficial for everyone.

“If it’s always wanted people you’re going after, or people known to carry guns, you’re going to want the span of control to be tighter so you can manage and supervise what’s going on,” Mina said. “Making sure you’re safe, the public’s safe, and making sure the bad guy is safe and situations can be peacefully resolved. Supervision is a good thing.”

Two points of contention — the lack of a uniform and the unmarked vehicles — came to represent, to critics, bad policing and unwarranted aggression. The officers in the new unit won’t wear uniforms but will wear jackets with police insignia, a slight departure from the past where officers were required to wear the shield identifying themselves as officers outside their outermost layer of clothing.

“In many communities, that is a sign that you’re about to be attacked,” Adams said about plainclothes cops jumping out of their car. “That has created a lot of hostility. We are going to make sure that the version of plainclothes officers will have modified police attire so that they are quickly identified as police officers.

‘Real accountability’ is necessary

According to experts, for the most part, unmarked cars and officers in baseball caps and oversized shirts weren’t fooling anyone, but it’s a common defense for someone who runs from the police that they didn’t know the person chasing them was an officer. And the reason for a lighter duty belt was for it to be easier to give chase.

“Defense attorneys are gonna do what they do … What are they going to say, (their client) knew he was the police and ran? You could be wearing a clown outfit and (the defense attorney) would say (their client) didn’t know it was a clown,” Giacalone said.

Mina said unmarked cars, especially at night, can buy an officer a few seconds of advantage. Being able to get a little closer, or evading detection for even a couple more seconds, is sometimes all an officer needs to capture someone evading custody.

“If you’re standing there (selling drugs), you’re not going to throw dope or run every time you see a car that’s not marked. They’re looking, don’t get me wrong. And in some cases, we catch ’em sleeping, not paying attention. But it buys you a few more seconds,” he said. “The idea is they get just a little bit closer than a marked unit, and sometimes even a second or two is helpful … you’re not fooling anyone but it will get you a little closer and buy you a second or two of hesitation.”

The units also came to be associated with NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. Stop-and-frisk, where police stopped and searched those they considered suspicious, had been used to deter crime, law enforcement officials have said in the past in defense of the tactic. But it has also resulted in a slew of lawsuits by residents complaining of unlawful stops.

In August 2013, a federal judge ruled that stop-and-frisk violated the Constitution and ordered the city to develop remedies, including a federal monitor overseeing the NYPD.

Charney, now with the CCRB, was the plaintiff’s attorney in the landmark stop-and-frisk case that ended the practice in New York. It was the same case where Mayor Adams — then a state senator, testified that he had a sit-down with then New York Gov. David Paterson and the NYPD commissioner at the time, Ray Kelly, regarding a stop-and-frisk bill.

Adams testified that Kelly said the policy targeted Blacks and Hispanics disproportionately, “because he wanted to instill fear in them, every time they leave their home, they could be stopped by police,” according to court records. Kelly denied that assertion.

“I think this time around, we really need to learn from the lessons of the past and make sure that there is going to be real accountability and oversight for these officers. And frankly, any officers in the police department,” Charney said.

Giacalone said Adams’ first test will come with the unit’s first high-profile use of force.

“When something goes bad, and always something will happen … whether a situation goes sideways, or there’s a questionable shooting, going after people with guns and violent crimes, things will happen. Does Adams have the stomach to deal with what comes next? That’s the whole thing.”

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CNN’s Brynn Gingras contributed to this report.

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