Eric Adams was beaten by cops from the 103rd precinct—what makes him think he can make them stop?
In a speech to the 103rd precinct, whose officers beat Adams when he was a child, he declared his personal "demon" had been shaken off. Is he willing to purge the rest of New York of police violence?
On the day after Eric Adams’ inauguration, the new mayor stood behind a podium outside of Queens’ 103rd precinct. Flanked by police commissioner Keechant Sewell, Councilwoman Nantasha Williams (D-St. Albans) and officers from the 103rd, Adams reflected on the highly symbolic setting.
“There is probably no more significant a visit for this historical journey than coming to the 103rd Precinct,” Adams said. “You know my story,” he said. “This is the precinct where I was arrested and beat as a child.” Adams described his return to the precinct in spiritual terms. “I have left that demon on these streets ... back as the mayor in charge of the entire police department.”
In a video released Thursday of Adams’ private address to officers, he said he would support them and vowed that abusive cops would be held accountable. “I’m going to have your backs. But if you are abusive to my community, I’m going to make sure you don’t serve in my department and you don’t hurt your fellow officers.”
“Those are the dualities of it,” he said, when he cited his own troubled history with the precinct, while also commemorating an officer who was fatally shot on the job.
“We have the finest among us and sometimes unfortunately we have a small number of the worst among us.”
But a look at the recent history of the 103rd precinct shows that it’s hardly a small number with “the worst” records of abuse. Adams may have shaken his personal demon, but the people in the neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens have not been so lucky in the close to five decades since he was beaten (and neither are New York City taxpayers, who are on the hook for the hundreds of millions in lawsuit payouts).
The 103rd has the 11th highest number of lawsuits in the city (there are 77 precincts). Between 2015 and 2018, the precinct has been sued 21 times, costing the city $242,001 in total settlements from the six that were resolved; 17 are still pending. They’ve also been associated with $100,000 in known settlements from 3 other lawsuits. In comparison, close to 30 precincts were sued fewer than 5 times in the same period.
There have been over 5,000 CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board) complaints against members of the 103rd precinct since 1989: 1,800 incidents of force; 221 instances of offensive language; 104 beatings; 31 chokeholds; 33 strip searches as well as false statements, lack of courtesy; denial of medical assistance.
The lawsuits that generated the biggest costs to taxpayers involved allegations similar to what Adams experienced at the age of 15: physical violence, intimidation, false arrest. In Tippins et al. vs The City of New York, settled for $97,000 in 2015, six officers from the 103rd precinct were accused of grabbing Terrance Tippins and throwing him down the stairs and onto the concrete head first, after he legally refused them entry into his home. He landed on his face and officers proceeded to kneel on his neck and back, causing him to have trouble breathing. When his nephew came out, officers threw him on the ground and also restrained in a way that impeded his breathing (this occurred the week before Eric Garner died after officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold and knelt on his back). Both men were arrested for “disorderly conduct.” During his restraint, officers broke Tippins’ eye socket and he remained in custody for 20 hours. All charges against the two men were dismissed.
In 2015, a Queens man was on a shopping trip when officers from the 103rd accosted him, claiming that he’d engaged in “promoting gambling in the second degree.” They tased him in the chest (Taser international has warned against tasing suspects in the chest). He lost consciousness from the blast and fell to the ground, sustaining serious head injuries. The “gambling” charges were dismissed ($70,000 lawsuit).
In the summer of 2012, Antuan Grant and his then-girlfriend were walking to a 24-hour grocery when police charged at them, hands on weapons, yelling, “freeze!” They complied. Grant was handcuffed. When he asked why he was arrested, officers threw him to the ground and began to pummel him with their fists and feet. An officer grabbed him by the hair so hard he ripped out a chunk of his scalp. They maced him in the face when he was already confined to the police car. When they reached the 103rd precinct, an officer proceeded to grab him and then drop him face down on the concrete until another cop said, “OK. Enough.” Inside, he was strip-searched (a practice limited by the police manual to cases where officers have a strong suspicion of contraband). He had trouble breathing and was eventually taken to a nearby hospital. Officers prepared a report accusing him of assaulting an officer. All charges were eventually dropped.
More recent pending lawsuits accuse officers of fracturing a suspect’s face; arresting a man for possessing his own clearly marked prescription medication; punching a man in the face when he asked a question; punching yet another man in the face after he’d already put his hands behind his back; fabricating evidence and making false gun charges; conducting illegal strip searches.
Of the dozens and dozens of officers named in the above lawsuits, only three are no longer active. This means that when Adams ceremonially conducted roll-call, he was honoring dozens of officers that have cost the city thousands of dollars for violence, false arrests, and a general lack of respect for the lives and wellbeing of people in the community they ostensibly serve.
Even if Adams is committed to concrete changes (criminal justice experts are not holding their breaths) it’s hard to see how he plans to purge the department of bad cops.
First, Mayor Adams has given almost no concrete policy details. Though he’s committed to outfitting all members of the NYPD—especially plainclothes units—with body worn cameras, studies show they have little impact on police behavior. There are no penalties for failing to turn a camera on and few officer misdeeds are recorded by officers’ own equipment. A camera isn’t useful in stemming false arrests and bogus charges. Adams has voiced support for legal stop-and-frisk—meaning, stops and searches as long as they aren’t racially motivated. A camera isn’t going to pick up what an officer is thinking when they stop and search someone. Meanwhile, the NYPD is notorious for blocking efforts at transparency; video footage is virtually never shared with the public, and even the CCRB has trouble getting access to it during their investigations.
Meanwhile, existing institutional means to track officer behavior and discipline abusers are woefully inadequate. The CCRB is charged with investigating complaints; even in virtually all cases where they recommend termination the commissioner either deems the officer not guilty or decides on a far milder punishment.
In December, the NYCLU released a report showing that in twenty years a mere two percent of officers were disciplined after a CCRB investigation, and fewer than one percent were subjected to real discipline, which in almost all cases was docked vacation days.
If you’re the new head of an organization, you might look at past performance and reshuffle employees based on their strengths and flaws. But no one — not Adams, not his police commissioner—has the authority to demote NYPD officers. There’s no mechanism for it. Meanwhile, pay raises aren’t tied to performance but tend to accrue with years on the force. Even officers with the worst records of abuse get pay raise after pay raise. Termination, meanwhile, is virtually a nonstarter. When Daniel Pantaleo was let go five years after the killing of Eric Garner, Patrick Lynch, the longtime president of the Police Benevolent Association, threatened a work slowdown. “The job is dead,“ Lynch said after Pantaleo’s termination. “Our police officers are in distress. Not because they have a difficult job, not because they put themselves in danger, but because they realize they’re abandoned.”
Adams rejected the PBA’s endorsement in 2021, but when addressing more conservative audiences, he boasts about their previous support. “People say that I have attacked the police, but that is a contradiction to the reality,” Adams told the Jewish publication Mishpacha. “I have always been endorsed by the PBA. The rank-and-file members know that I believe in public safety and in social justice — they go together.”
It’s a nice slogan but it’s virtually impossible to see their coexistence without a massive structural shakeup, one that would naturally be seen as “anti-cop” and generate blowback. So it’s no surprise that Adams is resorting to the trick of any CEO who wants to collect progressive bona fides while continuing to oversee an exploitative, amoral institution: promising more diversity by hiring more Black cops and more women, like Sewell, to positions of power. “The fastest way to true reform is to add as much diversity to the NYPD as fast as we can, while building trust through transparency,” his reform platform reads.