Criminal Justice

Eric Adams to launch “modified” version of NYPD plainclothes unit

Fulfilling a campaign promise, the New York City mayor laid out plans for the latest iteration of the “anti-crime unit” that was formed in the 1970s.

A plainclothes NYPD officer detaining a person in 2020.

A plainclothes NYPD officer detaining a person in 2020. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Mayor Eric Adams is following through with his campaign promise to bring back plainclothes police officers to target gun crimes.

Adams announced on Monday that the New York City Police Department will deploy the new “Neighborhood Safety Teams” within three weeks to 30 precincts with the highest rates of gun violence in the city.

“We must stop the flow of illegal guns in our city. The iron pipeline must be broken. The NYPD is our first line of defense against gun violence. We’ll make new efforts to strengthen and reinforce it while continuing our mission to involve the community,” Adams said, while rolling out a broader policing policy titled “Blueprint to End Gun Violence in New York City.” 

The policy comes as the city has experienced a spate of high-profile incidents of gun violence in Adams’ first days in office. On Friday, a New York City police officer, Jason Rivera, was allegedly killed by a gunman inside a Harlem apartment while responding to a domestic violence call. His partner, Wilbert Mora, was also shot and injured. Just two days earlier, an 11-month-old baby was hit in the face by a stray bullet in the Bronx, according to police. And on Jan. 9, 19-year-old Kristal Bayron-Nieves was shot and killed during an attempted robbery while working at a Burger King in East Harlem, police said. 

The “Neighborhood Safety Teams” are a new iteration of the anti-crime unit that was disbanded by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in June 2020 as part of an ideological shift toward community policing. The unit was notorious for aggressive tactics and to many it was synonymous with the controversial practice of “stop and frisk.” Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who fatally choked Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014, was a member of the anti-crime unit.

Adams vowed that the new “Neighborhood Safety Teams” will be “a modified version of plainclothes” held accountable through body-worn cameras and by assigning the “right officers” to the unit. 

“You must have the right training, the right mindset, the right disposition and be, as I say all the time, emotionally intelligent enough that you are getting ready to engage someone in the street,” Adams said during a question-and-answer session with the media following the Monday announcement. “So we are going to make sure the 400-plus people in the pipeline to go into our new unit, that they are the best fit for the unit.”

It’s unclear exactly how many officers will be part of the new teams. Under de Blasio, there were 600 officers who were reassigned following the policy change. 

Adams’ plan is the latest version of a division that began in 1971 as the “street crimes unit” and was tripled in size under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to include nearly 400 officers. Some cops said at the time that the expansion did away with the heavy screening and surveillance the smaller unit was subject to by department brass, The New York Times reported. The lack of oversight, along with the pressure to seize guns, and a general shift toward more aggressive policing under Bratton led some cops to abuse their authority.

Shortly after the expansion, the street crimes unit was involved in the shooting death of an unarmed man in the Bronx, Amadou Diallo. Four officers, all in plainclothes, fired at him 41 times after mistaking his wallet for a gun. His death sparked outrage and calls to reform the undercover division.

Adams, who was a police officer at the time of Diallo’s shooting, mentioned the killing while acknowledging the unit is not without problems. 

“I know those mistakes so well,” he said, while noting the importance of body-worn cameras and vowing that officers who turn them off will face consequences. “If we want to rebuild trust in the police department and the civilians, we need to document what they are doing.”

Adams said that the NYPD began to bring back use of undercover officers in its efforts to reduce gun crime in August with the use of unmarked cars carrying uniformed officers. “They have been playing a major role in removing guns off of our streets,” he said, calling the disbandment of the unit in 2020 “the wrong thing to do.”

“We should not have done that, because you need the element of surprise when you police,” Adams said. 

Members of the new unit will ride in unmarked cars, but wear clothing that identifies them as NYPD, such as windbreakers with the department logo on the back, Adams said.

Reformists have expressed concern that Adams’ policies will unfairly target Black and brown communities and lead to more violent altercations between police and civilians.

“We can – and frankly, must – find a better way to address public safety in our communities that doesn’t resort to plainclothes policing or officers engaging in activities never meant for them to take on, like social services,” New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera, who chairs the body’s criminal justice committee, told City & State. “From where we stand in this moment, it’s clear we need police involved in responding to violent crime, namely disrupting the flow of guns into our city, but we must simultaneously invest in deeper methods of creating public safety on the ground.”

The city’s police unions, meanwhile, along with law enforcement experts, have tied the unit’s demise to a surge in gun crime and say undercover work is essential to cracking down on the surge in shootings.

“The removal of plainclothes (unit) is the key issue to why gun crime has risen,” John Jay College of Criminal Justice adjunct assistant professor and retired NYPD homicide detective Alfred Titus Jr. told City & State. “In New York City, we need the plainclothes officers out there. They are the only ones who can infiltrate the gangs and the guns and that type of violence.”