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New Yorkers want gun violence to end. A controversial police unit returns to help

New York City Mayor Eric Adams says he is bringing back a controversial police unit to investigate gun violence. The previous unit was disbanded in 2020 after years of complaints over excessive force and racial profiling.
Seth Wenig
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AP
New York City Mayor Eric Adams says he is bringing back a controversial police unit to investigate gun violence. The previous unit was disbanded in 2020 after years of complaints over excessive force and racial profiling.

An 11-month-old girl was struck by a stray bullet that hit the parked car she was in on a street in the Bronx Wednesday. Last night, two police officers were shot, one fatally, as they checked out a domestic dispute call in Harlem. The suspected gunman also was killed.

These cases, and those of hundreds of others over the past year, have frustrated residents and police alike. They want the gun violence to stop.

New York City mayor and former cop, Eric Adams, has vowed to put an end to it. Among his strategies: reinstating the controversial plainclothes police unit. It's special anti-crime street unit with officers dressed as civilians.

"The plainclothes anti-gun unit is going to zero in on guns and gangs. We're going to use precision policing to identify the gang members, the crews," he said. "We're going to target them."

For many New Yorkers, this is a welcome response to the shootings which, feel out of control.

But plainclothes police are also a sensitive subject here. The unit was dismantled in 2020, after its tactics being declared unconstitutional. Residents and civil rights advocates had complained for years that the unit used excessive force and that it targeted people of color who it found "suspicious."

"The anti-crime unit was primarily tasked with doing these stops. And they would do them violently," says Jenn Borchetta, a managing director at the legal non-profit Bronx Defenders. "They would throw people against walls. I mean, we have one client who is 13 years old who was thrown against the hood of a car. Just for crossing the street."

The peak of the "stop-and-frisk" era, as it was known, was 2011. NYPD stopped over 680,000 people. Only 9% of them were white. The vast majority, an estimated 88%, hadn't committed any crimes.

Not just civilians and advocates felt "stop-and-frisk" was problematic

For many communities, it created a sense of living in constant danger, Borchetta says. "It was Black and brown people who every time they left their homes, they felt they were going to get jumped."

NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk was later ruled unconstitutional.

It wasn't just civilians and advocates who felt it was a problematic practice.

"I think most patrol officers who worked then, if they're going to be honest, they're going to say, they felt that pressure," says Professor Keith Ross, at John Jay college. Ross is a former NYPD plainclothes officer.

"I think in the early inception of these programs, police did feel empowered because they felt like they were making a difference in the communities that they worked with," he says. "But eventually, well, you don't really feel like you're helping people."

Ross blames an excessive emphasis on productivity, on constantly making arrests. "You have productivity goals," he recalls "and if you don't meet those goals, eventually you're going to be disciplined." Which, he says, led to people who shouldn't have been targeted, suddenly getting picked up for misdemeanors.

One big question about these policies is: Did they work?

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, or NYCLU, of the nearly 700,000 NYPD stops in 2011, 780 guns were seized.

A study by NYU and Columbia found there was a small reduction in crime.

That leads to another question: What was the cost?

Several high-profile killings in NYC over the years involved plainclothes police

Many point to the case of Amadou Diallo.

Diallo was a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant living in the U.S. In 1999, he was stopped by plainclothes police. They said he fit the description of a rapist in the area.

Officers fired 41 shots. He was shot 19 times and killed.

Officers said he was reaching for a gun.

He was reaching for his wallet. He didn't have a gun.

All officers involved in the shooting were later acquitted at trial.

The Diallo case resonated with many in New York who wanted the unit shut down. But there would be other high profile killings over the years involving plainclothes police: Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Saheed Vassell.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Kadiadou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo.
Henny Ray Abrams / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Kadiadou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo.
Shawn Williams stands next to a picture of his son, Antonio. He was shot at 15 times and killed by plainclothes officers in the Bronx in 2019
Jasmine Garsd/NPR / Jasmine Garsd/NPR
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Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Shawn Williams stands next to a picture of his son, Antonio. He was shot at 15 times and killed by plainclothes officers in the Bronx in 2019

"Bringing back the plainclothes unit is wrong"

In 2020, the unit was disbanded, amidst widespread protests locally and nationally over police brutality.

Kadiatou Diallo, Amadou's mother, says bringing the unit back now, is wrong. She's skeptical the force can change.

"You cannot just change, rebrand, and retrain people who have been doing something not good," she says.

She wants the mayor "to be a son, to be a father, to understand" the grief of families who have lost loved ones to gun violence and to encounters with police.

The mayor, Adams, says he is thinking, precisely, of those families. And he's emphasized that when he was in the NYPD, he spoke out against police brutality.

NYC mayor says the plainclothes police unit will work differently this time around

His administration has not yet given specifics about how officers in the unit will work, but he's promised that this time around it will be a different.

They will wear body cameras.

They will focus on criminals.

There will be consequences for police who overstep.

Accountability is something Shawn Williams is eager to see. In 2019, his son, Antonio Williams, was shot and killed by plainclothes officers. He was waiting for a taxi when police approached him. They were investigating illegal guns in the area. He ran, and police say during the struggle he was shot eight times. A plainclothes policeman also was killed during the arrest, shot by another officer.

Williams was 27. He was armed but police say he did not shoot his weapon. He had prior convictions, one in 2011 and another in 2018, both for nonviolent offenses. His family has accused police of releasing the information to distract from their own behavior.

Shawn William says in order for there to be any sense of trust in the police, "They need to start holding cops accountable for their actions. Not a smack on the wrist, not 'you're on suspension, you still get your salary.' "

It's been more than two years since his son was killed. The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the agency that investigates and mediates complaints against the NYPD, opened an investigation just a few months ago.

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