Eric Adams began his tenure as New York City’s mayor making explicitly pro-policing and -incarceration promises, with a so-called tough-on-crime approach that he argued was what voters wanted when they elected him. Historically low voter turnout—the lowest New York City had seen since 1953—suggests otherwise. Still, he has remained steadfast in his desire to be the law and order mayor. Adams cites his time as a cop with the New York Police Department as justification for making policy decisions like reversing plans to end solitary confinement. This is despite especially heinous and notorious examples of its usage at Rikers (rest in peace, Layleen Polanco and Kalief Browder). He is not alone in his (incorrect) perspective that more policing and more incarceration makes us safer and, in fact, joins an unfortunately rich legacy of pro-police mayors, many of whom are also Democrats. Most of them, like Adams, have President Joe Biden’s ardent support in bolstering funds toward rather than away from the carceral state.
Adams’ latest public safety strategy that he calls the “Blueprint for Safety” or “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” is more of the same. Heena S., a New York City-based writer and educator, sees this new strategy as following in the tradition of both Democratic and Republican mayors “who have used the rhetoric of ‘rising crime’ and gun violence as justification for the expansion of policing” when in reality there isn’t an objective framework to measure crime. Instead, politicians use unsubstantiated or sometimes plainly wrong claims “to surveil, oppress, incarcerate, and kill poor Black New Yorkers and other groups that are deemed expendable,” according to Heena.
The Blueprint for Safety has many incredibly troublesome points. One that has gotten attention from many is the reinstatement of the infamous plainclothes officer unit, the same group responsible for the killing of Eric Garner and Amadou Diallo, whom cops fired at 41 times and who was shot 19 times in front of his apartment 23 years ago. But this is not the only concerning part of the plan. Heena points out that one of “the blueprint’s proposals is for further collaboration between local, state, and federal policing agencies,” which she says is extremely worrying, particularly considering the “impact a stronger partnership between ICE, local jails, and police, state prisons could have on undocumented Black and brown communities.” Adams also seeks to amend rules regarding minors, making it possible to try 16- and 17-year-olds arrested on gun charges in criminal court, bolstering the school-to-prison pipeline. Heena also warns that even the parts of the plan that don’t seem to focus on incarceration are far more insidious than they seem, saying that the proposals to expand mental health care “are centered on treating the most ‘dangerous’ of mentally ill folks through forced psychiatric incarceration.”
New York is not the only major city with a mayor hellbent on reinforcing the status quo and maintaining the carceral state, even after promises to do the opposite. Veronica Rodriguez is a Chicago youth organizer who co-hosted a 2019 community-led mayoral forum in New Mount Pilgrim Church “where [hundreds] of community members and myself were lied to by Lori Lightfoot on her promise to cancel the cop academy, re-open our mental health clinics, and to invest in our communities.” Instead of funding these priorities, Mayor Lightfoot has elected to double down on building the $95 million new Cop Academy and decided to continually increase police spending, citing rising crime and a need to prioritize public safety. Rodriguez rejects these plans, saying that Chicago would be safer with “clean water, free mental health and health care, free child care, food, community spaces, organized COVID testing sites and free tests, an increase in workers’ wages, the Peace Book ordinance, violence prevention programs, the release of community members from Cook County Jail and the juvenile detention center, and free housing.”
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has also pivoted away from her 2020 promises to reduce police spending, instead opting to prioritize more policing, more surveillance, and more institutionalization of the city’s most marginalized. Tessa Brown, local organizer with Rad Mission Neighbors, says her community is enraged that Breed is “letting systems collapse and then blaming and punishing citizens for her own failure.” Brown says that Breed has had plenty of opportunities to support the most vulnerable in San Francisco.
Residents voted in 2018 for Prop C, a measure to use corporate wealth amounting to nearly $500 million for services for unhoused people, which Breed did not support. Breed has also been continually criticized for refusing to take meaningful action in housing unhoused people in empty hotel rooms, removing them from dangerous shelters. In response to the crisis she worsened, Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin district, where cops had already begun “clearing encampments and trashing people’s homes and belongings, before promised services were even available,” according to Brown. Much like Rodriguez, Brown says the answers to the city’s issues lie in de-prioritizing the police and incarceration.
“The solutions are clear,” Brown says. “We need CART, the Compassionate Alternative Response Team. We need safe injection sites, which are already saving lives in New York. We need decriminalization of sex work. We need housing, which SF voters voted to pay for using our incredible local corporate wealth!”
If these examples aren’t sufficient, Adams could look to Atlanta for more evidence. Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms just left office, but her policies and decisions continue to have long-lasting repercussions. She gained national attention as a so-called leading voice on reforming policing during 2020’s protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. While she claimed to understand the protesters’ desire for change as a Black woman, Bottoms famously told them to “go home” because their protests had no purpose. For organizers in Atlanta, this was no surprise coming from the woman who approved an extra $10 million for police as she entered office. Micah Herskind, an Atlanta-based organizer, says she exited office having learned nothing, still fully supporting the expanding police state. “One of Mayor Bottoms’ final acts as mayor was to sign off on the creation of a massive policing training facility, named ‘Cop City’ by organizers who are fighting to stop it,” says Herskind. “Her legacy in Atlanta will be ignoring the largest uprisings against policing in decades to instead create one of the biggest police training facilities in the country—even as Atlanta continues to face true public safety and health crises of COVID, affordable housing, gentrification, and so many others.”
Adams’ Blueprint for Safety will fail to protect New Yorkers, just as other mayors’ attempts to use the police and incarceration as tools of public safety always have. “Whether under [Rudy] Giuliani, [Mike] Bloomberg, [Bill] De Blasio, or Adams, expanding the power of the NYPD and the police state through fabricated narratives of rising crime and fear-mongering has never made this city’s people safer,” says Heena. It is time to try something different, to invest in life-giving services, rather than continuing to uphold the deadly status quo, which has proven successful only in making the people’s lives more dangerous.