De Blasio-era police reforms suffer under Adams

With recent cuts to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, Adams has set his sights on one of the last untouched police reforms of his predecessor.

Mayor Eric Adams makes a public safety-related announcement on Aug. 3, 2022.

Mayor Eric Adams makes a public safety-related announcement on Aug. 3, 2022. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Last month, the Civilian Complaint Review Board announced it would stop investigating several categories of police misconduct, including lying to its investigators in certain cases, due to Mayor Eric Adams’ latest proposed budget cuts. The move, some suggest, quietly started putting the nail in the coffin of one of the last major de Blasio-era police reforms that hasn’t yet been undone, either partially or totally, during the first two years of Adams’ mayoralty.

“That sounds very much like political horse trading to me. They didn’t have to pick that because of budget cuts,” said Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Giving the CCRB the authority to investigate false official police statements was the most controversial amendment considered by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, a multilateral panel established by the City Council to draft changes to the City Charter and submit them to voters for approval. Top officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration reportedly launched a secret lobbying campaign to kill the amendment before it reached voters. Sal Albanese, Adams' appointee to the commission, said that he received a call from a de Blasio aide telling him to vote against it, which he did. But the commission ultimately voted to ratify the amendment, to the applause of police reform advocates, and voters approved it later that year.

Now, Adams has the reform on the chopping block. A spokesperson for the mayor told City & State that the move to cut positions came directly from City Hall, without the cooperation of CCRB leadership, but that it was the agency's decision to eliminate that particular level of oversight. “While the CCRB maintains more than the legally mandated number of positions, the agency chose not to cooperate with PEG process, forcing the administration to identify efficiencies – including eliminating vacant positions – without CCRB’s participation,” City Hall spokesperson Charles Lutvak wrote in an email.

Under the cut, the CCRB would still investigate false police statements if they are part of a broader set of misconduct allegations, but stand-alone cases of officers lying to investigators would be dropped. That means officers who have not otherwise been accused of wrongdoing would not be penalized for providing false testimony in cases against their peers.

Watchdogs, former de Blasio officials and members of the City Council’s progressive flank said that the CCRB’s false-statements policy is just the latest of many hard-won reforms to the New York City Police Department that have either been reversed, pared down or simply ignored by the Adams administration.

“We made an enormous amount of progress under Mayor de Blasio, and the Adams administration is doing its utmost to roll (it) back,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Elizabeth Glazer, who served as director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under de Blasio before founding the journal Vital City, said that the Adams administration has been much less transparent than the de Blasio administration was. “Constitutional policing depends on transparency. That is absolutely core,” she said. “What’s been striking and incredibly unfortunate in this administration is a culture of secrecy that pervades activities throughout law enforcement.”

“I think it’s a problem and it seems to be not limited to just one thing or a dropped ball or a mistake…It seems more as if it’s a mode of operation to hide things,” added Glazer, who helped lead de Blasio’s criminal justice programs from 2014 to 2020.

Lutvak defended the administration's record on police accountability, pointing to lower rates of violent crime under Adams – a trend that mirrors other major cities – and the seizure of 13,000 guns by the NYPD’s new anti-crime unit. He also touted a new policy for policing protests as part of a recent settlement with state Attorney General Letitia James and civil rights groups over the city’s handling of protests in 2020. Days after Lutvak touted the settlement to City & State as a sign of the mayor’s commitment to police reform, though, the mayor reversed his position and sharply criticized the settlement.

De Blasio came into office in 2014 under the shadow of a federal ruling that found the NYPD’s widespread use of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional. In his first year, de Blasio dropped the city’s appeal of that ruling and initiated the remedial process, which included appointing a federal monitor to oversee its implementation.

As the number of unconstitutional stops fell, police reformers switched their focus to transparency and accountability. They counted a number of victories during de Blasio’s two terms, though most of them were forced by the City Council or the courts rather than being championed by the mayor. These included the launch of a body-worn camera program; the passage of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, also known as POST; and a host of changes to the NYPD discipline system. 

The push to move programs like school safety and mental health crisis response out of the NYPD’s portfolio also gained steam during the de Blasio administration. In his penultimate year in office, de Blasio and then-Police Commissioner Dermot Shea – after weeks of protest over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis – disbanded the department’s notorious anti-crime unit, which had been at the center of a number of police brutality cases.

Adams entered City Hall Amid an uptick in homicides and gun violence, caught between his identities as a bygone police reformer and as a tough-on-crime centrist Democrat. On the campaign trail, Adams became known for his frequent refrain: “The prerequisite to prosperity is public safety and justice.”

During his first years in office, as crime rates returned to pre-pandemic levels, many of the accountability measures advocates had won were stripped to the bone.

One of Adams’ first acts as mayor in January 2022 was to reinstate the anti-crime unit, now known as Neighborhood Safety Teams. By the summer of 2023, Mylan Denerstein, the federal monitor overseeing stop-and-frisk, warned that the unit was back to its rough old ways. Denerstein’s report found that a quarter of stops were unlawful and almost all stops had targeted people of color. In 2022, police stopped 15,000 people, an uptick from the year before, though far below the height of the Bloomberg years when hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers were stopped each year.

Adams came under fire again in 2023 for bucking the POST Act — which requires the NYPD to publish plans when implementing new surveillance tech — after he unveiled several new roving surveillance robots without the required disclosure, though Lutvak argued that new disclosures were not required because the robot does not “use new technology.” A 2022 Inspector General report found that the NYPD had in many cases used “general and generic” language as a catchall in its disclosures to skirt the law.

Meanwhile, the NYPD’s body-worn camera program has not delivered the direct access to footage of police interactions that its original supporters hoped for. Families of people killed by police have criticized the NYPD for controlling what footage is released and when, maintaining the power to edit the footage before release and delaying its sharing with oversight agencies — practices that began under de Blasio and have continued under Adams. Last month, the NYPD finally announced it would end its practice of withholding footage from the CCRB after ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine published an investigative report about the use of body-worn cameras.

Under Adams, the NYPD has shirked a recent requirement that the police commissioner explain decisions on police discipline that deviate from CCRB recommendations. In 2022, Adams’ first commissioner, Keechant Sewell, offered an explanation in only 70 such cases out of more than 300 recommendations to discipline officers. Sewell also backed changes to a long-sought police “disciplinary matrix,” established in 2020, that relaxed punishment for various forms of officer misconduct.

Progressive critics have accused Adams and the NYPD of flagrantly violating the law and dodging oversight. “From letting Kawaski Trawick’s murderers off scot free, to deciding at will not to show up to Council oversight hearings, to defunding the Civilian Complaint Review Board, to racking up unlimited overtime and misconduct settlements at a time when every other agency is suffering devastating budget cuts, it is clear that Mayor Adams’ NYPD is a rogue agency with nothing but contempt for every single oversight body, including the people’s elected Council,” Council Member Tiffany Cabán said in a statement. Trawick was shot in his apartment in 2019 by Police Officer Brendan Thompson, and the NYPD has so far declined to discipline either Thompson or his partner, Herbert Davis.

Moskos, the John Jay professor, said the NYPD was unlikely to abide by reforms that were created without consultation with the department. “You’re not going to improve anything if you only see the police department as obstructionist,” he said. “Even if that’s true you still have to work with them. Most of the stuff under de Blasio was absolutely not working with the NYPD or other agencies in drafting these policies.”  

The mayor’s apparent reversal of criminal justice reforms go beyond the NYPD.

The NYCLU’s Lieberman and others have accused Adams of “sabotaging” efforts to reduce incarceration rates and shutter the plagued Rikers Island jail complex. The mayor has repeatedly indicated the city may not meet the legal mandate to close Rikers by 2027, a deadline set through an agreement between de Blasio and the City Council. This year, a federal monitor found the administration’s handling of the crisis on Rikers to be “ineffective,” and a federal judge is considering the possibility of federal receivership for the city’s beleaguered jails system. 

Adams has also stepped up the city’s sweeps of homeless encampments and the involuntary removal to hospitals of people in distress. New York Lawyers for the Public Interest sued the city in 2021 for its use of police as first responders when people are experiencing mental health issues, including people who are homeless. The lawsuit, which is still pending, would replace police in these situations with healthcare responders. 

Under the mayor’s proposed budget cuts, investigating improper involuntary removals would also be dropped from the CCRB’s repertoire.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the CCRB will still be able to investigate false police statements in the context of investigations into other police misconduct. The mayor’s proposed budget cuts would only stop the CCRB from initiating investigations focused solely on allegations of false police statements. The article also previously incorrectly reported the status of a lawsuit filed by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest against the city. 

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