Lieutenant Eric Adams, the outspoken head of a black police officers’ group that was once the target of an undercover investigation by the NYPD, is being touted as a serious candidate to become the city’s next police commissioner.
For the past three months, several high-ranking officers—black and white—privately have been proposing a full-blown campaign to persuade mayoral hopeful Mark Green to consider appointing Adams the head of the nation’s largest police force. “We’ve been weighing the downside of coming out,” said one top department official, who is white, and who claimed he was “the first to drum up support” for Adams. “We’re talking about political repercussions that would come from City Hall and One Police Plaza.”
In April, Adams, who is president of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, endorsed Green, asserting that the public advocate was “no Johnny-come-lately” to encouraging better relations between police and the African American community. Adams, 40, would be one of the country’s youngest police commissioners and the third African American in the city’s history to hold the prestigious post. “Mark should go ‘the Green Mile’ on this one,” quipped an Adams supporter who is in law enforcement. So is Mark Green black enough? “Mark is very fond of Eric,” said Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for Green, who won the endorsements of former mayor David Dinkins and rap music mogul Russell Simmons. “Eric has done a lot of good work for the police department and the city, but Mark will not discuss who he would consider for police commissioner.”
Some political pundits speculated that in a Green administration William Bratton would reprise his role as police commissioner. But law enforcement supporters of Adams argued that Bratton’s endorsement of Green—which was meant to deflate charges that Green is “anti-cop”—comes at a higher price. Bratton, they say, wants to be appointed deputy mayor, making it easy for Green to consider installing Adams as police commissioner. Bratton did not return a Voice call for comment.
“No matter which of these candidates becomes mayor, I think that Eric Adams has certainly gained the confidence of the broader New York City community,” said Congressman Charles Rangel, the highest-ranking New York City politician to throw his support behind Adams. “I think he’d be an outstanding candidate,” added Rangel, who has not made an endorsement in the mayoral race. “And he wouldn’t have to go to the police academy for sensitivity lessons either.”
Adams said he endorsed Green partly because Bratton had joined Green’s camp. “I have had a long relationship with Commissioner Bratton,” Adams said. “In the beginning, he and I disagreed philosophically on strategies of policing, and we would get into public confrontations. But our relationship grew into one of mutual respect because he is a professional. I discovered that he was willing to listen to ideas that are sound and well thought out.”
A stocky, clean-cut figure with an imposing stride, the bald-headed Adams is sometimes referred to as “the laughing policeman” because of his ebullient giggle. Speaking as the head of 100 Blacks at many of the racially charged NYPD controversies during the Giuliani years and addressing issues in crisp, articulate rhetoric, the charismatic Adams has become a familiar figure to New Yorkers. He calls friends and strangers “brother” or “sister” but is tough as nails on critics who brand him a maverick.
The veteran cop, whose organization planted a tree on Sunday at the sight where Good Samaritan Rupinder Singh was gunned down July 20 by a carjacker, rails daily about crime in African American neighborhoods. His stock phrase is that African American suspects, who, for example, rob and kill livery drivers and who stash illegal handguns in homes that wind up in accidental, fatal shootings of children “are not representative of our community.” The crime-fighting model, Operation Take Back Our Community (Operation T Back), which NYPD brass have imitated, was developed by Adams and his 100 Blacks. Today, scores of black and Latino teens—dubbed “permanent suspects” by racial profiling cops during encounters—refer to the group’s guidance on “What to do when stopped by the police.”
Despite his impressive record on social, political, and law enforcement issues, Adams told the Voice he was not campaigning for the top cop job. But the idea of being police commissioner initially overwhelmed him. He said he was not surprised that people in the department have that much respect for him. “It is encouraging to know that they believe that I am a credible candidate,” he added. “I’m awed by their support. I would not have survived in the NYPD if it weren’t for the good relations I have enjoyed over the years with these guys.”
An NYPD insider, who asked not to be identified, sought to portray Adams as the most qualified person to revamp a department that has been denounced as racist. The source noted that police-community relations are poor in many neighborhoods, partly because of racial and ethnic tensions between minorities and the mostly white patrol force. He credited Adams with easing racial tensions and helping to improve the department’s image in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999. “If we judge Eric by the standards Mayor Giuliani set when he appointed Bernard Kerik police commissioner, then Eric is way ahead of the pack,” the insider contended.
During the search for a successor to Howard Safir as police commissioner, Rudy Giuliani heaped praise on Kerik, 45, for reducing violence among inmates in his capacity as commissioner of the Department of Correction. Kerik was a former cop who served as an NYPD narcotics detective for most of his eight years on the force. At that time, however, it appeared that Kerik might not get the job because he did not have a college degree—a prerequisite to being police commissioner. A high school dropout with an equivalency diploma, Kerik had been taking courses through Empire State College and needed 24 more credits for his bachelor’s degree. He got a waiver from City Hall to bypass the requirement.
Adams, a champion of community policing, has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from John Jay College. He began his law enforcement career in 1984 after joining the transit police. Later he was promoted to sergeant. In 1995 when the Giuliani administration merged the transit and housing police departments with the NYPD, Adams retained the rank of sergeant. Later, he passed two promotional exams for lieutenant. Commissioner Safir, who had the right to pick and choose from a list of successful candidates, reportedly intended to ignore Adams, who had been critical of the department and of Safir’s leadership. But on November 5,
1998—two months after the NYPD disrupted the Million Youth March in Harlem—Safir backed down and promoted Adams. “I got promoted because of the Million Youth March,” Adams theorized. “There was such an uprising in the black community over the way the department handled the crowd at the march that when my name came up for promotion, they said, I guess, ‘We don’t need any more heat from the people.’ ”
In some quarters, Eric Adams is considered a threat to the department and to the extremist views on policing enforced by the Giuliani administration. In 1998, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau conducted two probes of 100 Blacks and Adams for an allegation not related to his organization.
The investigations were revealed during testimony by Deputy Chief Raymond King of Internal Affairs in Manhattan Federal Court. King was testifying at the civil trial of Yvette Walton, a former officer who claimed she was fired because she spoke out at a City Council hearing on the Street Crime Unit following the killing of Diallo.
King made the statements under cross-examination by New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Christopher Dunn. He testified that from August to October 1998, Internal Affairs conducted “covert surveillances” of Adams and collected his phone records. King did not say why Internal Affairs was investigating Adams. “They said I was associating with a known felon,” recalled Adams. “But the foundation of the investigation was bogus.” He described the investigation of him as “straight out of COINTELPRO,” referring to the acronym for the FBI’s notorious investigations of black organizations and the civil rights movement during the ’60s and early ’70s.
Adams said he knew that “the dark side,” a code name for Internal Affairs, was watching him because straight-arrow cops who protected him were watching the spies. “Someone has been calling me throughout my career, tipping me off,” he said. “This is the same person who called me and told me Internal Affairs had cameras in my office. Sure enough, I found the cameras in my office. Then this person told me, ‘They’re monitoring your phone calls.’ This person played back a telephone call I had gotten. This person said, ‘They’re trying to disrupt your home.’ ”
Adams told reporters there were no problems at work that would warrant an investigation, and added that during the time he was under surveillance, he was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant. The case was closed in June 1999 and deemed “unsubstantiated,” meaning the charges could not be proved or disproved.
In March 1999, Internal Affairs began a separate probe into 100 Blacks. King did not say what the probe was about, but a police source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it involved complaints from two black officers in the Street Crime Unit that members of 100 Blacks were allegedly harassing them following the Diallo shooting. Adams’s group allegedly wanted the Street Crime cops to tell them about alleged racist activities within the unit.
Adams said at the time that he was “bewildered and concerned” about the investigations. “Since our organization was put in place, we’ve prided ourselves in bringing about some type of harmony within the police force,” said the activist cop who cofounded 100 Blacks with Sergeant Noel Leader. “I cannot imagine what we have done in the last five years that would prompt this. We’ve held ourselves to a strict code, and expect our members to do the same.”
Adams and 100 Blacks criticized the department when they felt it gave out misleading information about controversial shootings involving fellow officers. Adams recalled how the department tried to cover up a so-called “friendly fire” shooting of an African American officer during a drug probe in East New York. “Somehow it first leaked out that the shooting was [the work of] a sniper,” Adams testified at a federal trial involving Yvette Walston’s lawsuit against the department. “We knew that it was not a sniper and we [held] a news conference to inform the public that it was not a sniper.” Adams also revealed that the department gathered information on officers’ statements by sending undercover cops, who posed as reporters, to news conferences called by 100 Blacks.
The 100 Blacks probe was closed and deemed unsubstantiated in March 1999. Adams denied that the group has ever intimidated anyone. Asked about the probes, deputy chief Tom Fahey defended the department’s actions. “The investigation techniques used were consistent with an investigation of this nature, and subsequently the allegations were unsubstantiated,” he said. Adams had asked the department for the records of the investigations, but is now suing to have the records released.
Last week, a judge ordered the NYPD to reinstate former police officer Yvette Walton. The ruling was a victory for Walton and for Eric Adams and his 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement. It was Walton’s association with 100 Blacks that attracted the attention of her superiors.
On February 14, 1999, 10 days after Amadou Diallo was gunned down, Walton (one of only three African American women in the Street Crime Unit, and the only one assigned to street patrols) appeared at a news conference wearing a black leather jacket, gray hood, dark glasses, and a white and black scarf wrapped tightly around her face, and with her voice electronically altered. The entire affair, including putting Walton in disguise, was orchestrated by Adams. “It was my idea,” Adams would later testify. “And after conferring with Sergeant Leader, we both agreed. But it was [at] my persistence.”
With Adams at her side, the 12-year NYPD veteran charged that the racist practices of her unit led to the killing of Diallo. Two weeks later, Walton appeared on ABC’s Nightline program. The department took another beating when Walton, again in disguise, testified at a City Council hearing, whispering comments to Adams and Leader. At the time, Adams and 100 Blacks were being investigated by Internal Affairs.
The NYPD, however, found out it was Walton doing the bashing and fired her the same day of the hearing, allegedly because she abused sick-leave privileges. After a non-jury trial last year, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein found that Commissioner Safir had fired Walton in retaliation for speaking out. “I find that the Police Department knew that it was Walton who was the spokesperson of 100 Blacks criticizing the SCU for employing discriminatory policies that led to the killing of Amadou Diallo,” Hellerstein wrote in a 36-page decision.
“The Police Department knew of Walton’s role from their monitoring of 100 Blacks’ activities, from their monitoring of incoming and outgoing calls to and from the 100 Blacks telephone, and from the ease with which Walton was identifiable behind her disguise,” he stated. “The Department also knew that a female member formerly with the SCU, presumably the same female spokesperson, was to testify at the City Council hearing concerning the SCU. . . .” The department’s “denial of this knowledge is not credible,” he added. The judge also noted that Walton “would not have been dismissed had she not spoken out publicly on behalf of ‘100 Blacks in Law Enforcement’ on an issue of immediate and substantial concern to the Department.”
Additional reporting: Associated Press
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 31, 2001