Police Brutality Victim Becomes Cop - Then Politician Bent on Police Reform
Eric Adams was 15 when police officers arrested him on a criminal trespass charge, took him into the basement of the 103rd Precinct, in Jamaica, Queens, and beat him so severely that he would urinate blood for the next seven days. Embarrassed and ashamed, he never said a word to anyone about the brutality he experienced. Not even his mother. As Adams reflects back on that week, he’s not sure what good it would have done to tell anyone outside of his family. What could they have done?
"Black families were intimidated going into a precinct and talking about reporting a cop," Adams, 54, a retired NYPD captain and current Brooklyn Borough President, told AlterNet in a phone interview. "That was unheard of, and you wanted as little or no interaction with a police officer during those moments.”
The story has become a pivotal and well-known part of Adams’ biography. It fueled his resolve to enter law enforcement so that he could help change the way police officers perceive New Yorkers of color from the inside. He started out as a young activist cop who was constantly at odds with the NYPD to using more nuanced language when speaking about police and community relations. Now, an ambitious politician widely assumed to have mayoral aspirations, he’s still talking about the need for reform, especially in the wake of the Eric Garner chokehold death in Staten Island last summer. But because he has been on both sides of the uniform, people tend to listen.
When he became cop in 1984, Adams immediately noticed the racist stereotypes white officers held about black residents, but admitted during an interview with NPR’s David Greene in early December, that he almost got caught up in same line of thinking. “There were moments in my policing career where I became stereotypical, just like my white colleagues,” he told Greene. “And you really have to constantly ensure that you don't fall into the trap of believing - because you are hearing a large volume of calls that are a small portion of a community, committing crimes that you do not broad-brush the entire community.”
His profile rose in 1995 when he co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group that speaks out against police abuse in the NYPD. In that position, he was an outspoken critic of Howard Safir, New York’s police commissioner from 1996-2001, and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for their aggressive police policies in black communities. His outspokenness put him in the crosshairs of the department’s internal affairs bureau. It began an investigation into 100 Blacks and Adams, and in 1999 accused his group of “harassing” black officers in the Street Crimes to tell them about so-called racist activities within the unit. The probe was closed in March of 1999, citing unsubstantiated evidence.
Adams was undeterred. He called out then-mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2000 for publicizing the criminal record of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed black man who was killed by an undercover cop.
''If we want to look at criminal records, at 15 I was arrested,'' Adams told the New York Times.''Does that make me a person who shouldn't be allowed to walk the city? When did it become that because of an activity at 13, 14, or 15 years old, this should cause you to be shot? For a man to justify that, that is sick.''
In 2002, he criticized then NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for the lack of diversity in the department and for supporting Stop and Frisk, which disproportionately targeted young black men. “He is sending a clear message that he neither has the know-how nor the desire to address those issues that affect our communities of color,” he said.
After retiring from the NYPD in 2006 with 22 years on the job, Adams was elected as state senator to represent the mostly black 20th District of Central Brooklyn. He served in the role for eight years and then threw his hat in the Brooklyn Borough President’s race after longtime president Marty Markowitz decided not to run again. Adams won the office easily during citywide elections in 2013.
It wasn't long before Adams was back to speaking about police abuses, and the policies that seemed to justify them.
When police officer Daniel Panteleo was captured on cellphone video choking Eric Garner to death, in an arrest apparently over Garner’s sale of loose cigarettes, Adams told the New York Times: “I think we need to look at whether we still need these arrests. This is a good moment to re-evaluate what comes after ‘broken windows,’ now that the windows are no longer broken.”
And when New Yorkers hit the streets in protest after a grand jury decided not to indict Panteleo, Adams defended their right to march blasting his old nemesis former Giuliani for diverting the discussion about police brutality to one about black on black crime.
Two weeks later he defended the protesters on “Meet The Press” after NYPD union boss Pat Lynch and other former New York officials blamed activists for creating an atmosphere that lead to the killings of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a long gunman in Brooklyn Dec. 20.
“We cannot mix the two,” he said on air as he stood in front of a makeshift memorial at the scene where the officers were killed . “Those who were calling for the police reform were not calling for the police retribution.”
But from that same location later that day, he told a throng of reporters that protesters should suspend their marches until the officers were laid to rest.
“I’m asking all those [asking for police reform] to hold off on any form of protest until these officers are laid to rest in a peaceful manner,” Adams said. “It’s time for New Yorkers to come together.”
Many activists sharply criticized Mayor de Blasio for his insistence that protesters suspend marches but Adams claims to have received more than 80 emails of support, including some from activists who said they would honor his call.
Asked if he felt calling for protesters to pause could be construed as indirectly blaming them for the cops’ murders, he said it was more about allowing the families of the slain officers to grieve.
“I think those protesters who didn't understand that made a big mistake,” he said. “Nothing could have elevated their argument more than to be willing to say, ‘We don't want our issue to be caught up during this grieving period. There's time for us to continue our marches, continue our arguments, but taking a pause during the grieving period is important.’ Even in the times of war, generals stop fighting to allow people to tend to the wounded on the field.”
Though many of the protesters did pause, the police union, led by Pat Lynch, used the somber occasion to continue to show their distaste for Mayor Bill de Blasio for having the audacity to talk about his fears for his black son at the hands of police.
Adams publicly criticized the officers for turning their backs on the mayor during Officer Ramos’ funeral. "People across our nation are showing grief for our fallen heroes," Adams told Newsday. "Unfortunately, that pain sometimes involves a display of misplaced anger."
During our interview, his condemnation of the officers’ actions was much harsher. He said he would have brought offending officers up on departmental charges that would have included suspension or dismissal if he were Commissioner.
“If they want to do that while they’re in civilian clothing, then you know what, they have their Constitutional right to do so,” he said. “Police officers have two levels of authority that no other American has. They can take away freedom, and they can take a life. When you're given those authorities, you cannot continue to act like someone that's just doing what they want to do.”
Errol Louis, host of NY1’s “Inside City Hall,” told AlterNet that while Adams’ background as a former cop and public critic of the NYPD may earn him points now, it may not mean much if he decides to run for a higher office in New York.
“Adams was always an unusual police critic because he struck the right balance between making complaints about workplace conditions (which can sound whiny) and initiating a broader conversation about police-community relations," Louis said. "It's his strong suit and an area where he has unique credibility. That will fade with time -- hardly anybody now remembers that Sen. Marty Golden was once a cop -- but for now it's a great political advantage for Adams.”
Brooklyn is New York City’s largest borough with more than 2.5 million residents and is ground zero for “Broken Windows,” a policing tactic Adams supports. "Broken Windows" aggressively targets and fines people for minor violations such as urinating on the streets, selling cigarettes on street corners, smoking pot on stoops and randomly cleaning motorists windows at red lights. Between 2001 and 2013, a whopping 81 percent of the 7.3 million people slapped with violations were Hispanic or African-American, according to the New York Daily News.
The hardest hit communities in Brooklyn-- Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York-- are all mostly black communities. Adams expressed his concern with precinct commanders in Brooklyn about the racial disparity and has been very vocal about the need for white residents to be equally subject to enforcement of minor infractions. But he’s not ready to jettison the policy, just see that it is more evenly applied.
“Now, because they're not enforcing someone urinating openly on the corner at Bensonhurst doesn't mean I don't want it enforced in Brownsville,” he said. “Because they're not enforcing someone sitting on the corner selling drugs in Bay Ridge doesn't mean I don't want it enforced in East New York. I want the enforcement to take place throughout the city, and continue to articulate that to the borough commanders and to the police commissioner, but it doesn't say I want them to stop doing it in communities where you see a blatant disruption to a orderly way of life.”
Robert Gangi, director of the New York-based Police Reform Organizing Project, told AlterNet that Adams is a sincere reform-minded politician but believes broken windows is not a sound tactic for the borough president to support.
“What we at PROP would like to see from him and other mainstream politicians is vocal and pointed opposition to quota-driven ‘broken windows’ policing,” he said. “The government’s own numbers show and what an informed observer can readily see is that ‘broken windows’ is a blatantly racist practice that inflicts harm and hardship on low-income communities of color. Two undeniable realities back up that analysis: 85 to 95% of the people that the NYPD arrests or tickets for misdemeanors or other low-level infractions are black or brown persons and the kinds of activities that the NYPD arrests or tickets people of color for have been virtually decriminalized in white communities in the city.”
Adams knows his office as Borough President limits how much he can push officers to police all of Brooklyn equally. He’s also got his eye on other things, namely citywide office. During a meeting with the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition in October, he praised Mayor Bill de Blasio for his leadership but added that “eight years from now, no matter what people say, when Mayor de Blasio finishes keeping my seat, I’ll be the next mayor.”
But no matter how proudly he honors the badge, he’ll never forget that day officers violated his humanity in that precinct—coincidentally, the same one that hosted the cops who shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell—and how that experience motivated him to reclaim it.
“Once the blood cleaned up, I thought that all was well and I could move on to the next level of life and it was behind me,” he said. “But in reality, it wasn't behind me. It was still a demon and the only way you could get the demon out was to go in. So I went in to the police department to fight the demon that created it.”