The unit and other similarly composed units have been marked by allegations of aggressive tactics and police brutality. High-profile shootings by plainclothes officers undermined the legitimacy and perception of both the unit and the notion of plainclothes policing in New York. But Adams, who made public safety a key part of his campaign for mayor and touted his history as an NYPD captain as evidence he’s uniquely suited for tackling crime, said better training and oversight will help the city keep the unit’s troubled lineage in its past.
“In doing this, we will avoid mistakes of the past,” Adams said at a press conference announcing a multi-layered plan for fighting crime that also includes investing in community violence prevention and intervention programs. “These officers will be identifiable as NYPD, they will have body cameras, and they will have enhanced training and oversight.”
New York City is not unique: Cities across the country have units of plainclothes officers assigned to high-risk policing efforts, and though their assignments vary by city, they’re similar in many ways. They’re usually identifiable, unlike undercovers. They’re typically in unmarked cars and not responsible for answering 911 calls, are assigned hours and locations depending on crime concerns, and their mandate is guns or other felony enforcement. And in other cities, they’re also associated with aggressive policing.
“Here we just had a series of shootings in an area that has been a challenge for years but we were able to divert resources because they’re not tied to just answering calls. And it works. It works. They make a lot of good cases, a lot of good arrests. Put a lot of bad people away to help solve the issue.”
Plainclothes officers have a checkered history
“You’re going after people who’ve committed violent crimes, and firearms, you’re going to get that reaction because you’re not going to be right every time you jump out of the car,” Giacalone said. “That’s just the cost of doing business … If you’re involved in active policing, you’re going to get (complaints).”
“Unfortunately, in the past, the history shows us that these plainclothes officers were really some of the worst offenders when it came to abusive and discriminatory policing,” Charney said. “And I think a lot of that had to do with not only how they were trained or what incentives they were given, but also there was just really a lack of oversight and accountability for officers who did break the law or violate people’s rights.”
Cops selected will be ‘best fit for the unit’
The mayor’s plan calls for the new teams to be deployed to 30 of the city’s 77 precincts and housing units that are responsible for 80% of violence in the city.
The NYPD is vetting candidates for the teams now, Adams said.
“We’re going to make sure the 400 plus people that are in the pipeline to go into our new unit . . . that they’re the best fit for the unit,” Adams said.
“We must make sure we don’t continue to put dangerous people back on the street and continue the flow of guns in our cities,” Adams said during a speech, following the shooting of the two officers. “I’m going to get my cops to do their job. I need the rest of the country that are in positions of authority to do their job.”
Mina said that when he supervised teams in Orlando, he sought officers who could work with minimal supervision and showed they were productive with self-initiated activity.
“They’ve already put together cases, shown an aptitude for writing search warrants. Finding people with guns. Or recruiting (confidential informants),” he said.
Elite team was involved in the death of Diallo
The NYPD’s anti-crime unit existed for decades, and was staffed and directed at the precinct level, meant to respond to concerns within those boundaries and staffed by police officers familiar with the people and places in the precinct.
Promotion to NYPD’s detective squads typically ran through the anti-crime unit, though that’s not always the case in other cities. Promising or ambitious young officers with a few years working uniformed patrol — or those with older relatives or political connections on the job — would ask into NYPD anti-crime and work there for a couple years before doing 18 months or two years of detective work and earning a detective shield, Giacalone said
Once NYPD officers were selected for the anti-crime units, they were sent to training and worked their new assignment in plainclothes. They were expected to go after guns and people carrying them (referred to as “the gun police” by some residents), so they carried less equipment on their belts than uniformed officers and weren’t required to wear a uniform because of the expectation of getting into foot chases, Giacalone said.
Diallo was struck 19 times and was killed. The officers, who were later acquitted of murder charges, said they confused his wallet for a gun. The entire unit was eventually disbanded in response to Diallo’s death, and the work they did became the responsibility of the anti-crime units which long operated at the precinct, borough and city levels.
‘Supervision is a good thing’
Controversy over the years, including drug and money related corruption scandals, led to changes and tighter supervision within plainclothes units. This happened as views on policing continued to evolve across the country and cities started seeing an influx of drugs, drug money, and street violence and police corruption related to both.
The NYPD’s teams were typically composed of three officers and a sergeant working shifts that extend into the evening or overnight. In other parts of policing, in other cities and in patrol, sergeants will typically oversee a larger number of officers, from six to 10. Part of the reason for greater supervision, Giacalone said, was to prevent corruption.
“If it’s always wanted people you’re going after, or people known to carry guns, you’re going to want the span of control to be tighter so you can manage and supervise what’s going on,” Mina said. “Making sure you’re safe, the public’s safe, and making sure the bad guy is safe and situations can be peacefully resolved. Supervision is a good thing.”
Two points of contention — the lack of a uniform and the unmarked vehicles — came to represent, to critics, bad policing and unwarranted aggression. The officers in the new unit won’t wear uniforms but will wear jackets with police insignia, a slight departure from the past where officers were required to wear the shield identifying themselves as officers outside their outermost layer of clothing.
“In many communities, that is a sign that you’re about to be attacked,” Adams said about plainclothes cops jumping out of their car. “That has created a lot of hostility. We are going to make sure that the version of plainclothes officers will have modified police attire so that they are quickly identified as police officers.
‘Real accountability’ is necessary
According to experts, for the most part, unmarked cars and officers in baseball caps and oversized shirts weren’t fooling anyone, but it’s a common defense for someone who runs from the police that they didn’t know the person chasing them was an officer. And the reason for a lighter duty belt was for it to be easier to give chase.
“Defense attorneys are gonna do what they do … What are they going to say, (their client) knew he was the police and ran? You could be wearing a clown outfit and (the defense attorney) would say (their client) didn’t know it was a clown,” Giacalone said.
Mina said unmarked cars, especially at night, can buy an officer a few seconds of advantage. Being able to get a little closer, or evading detection for even a couple more seconds, is sometimes all an officer needs to capture someone evading custody.
“If you’re standing there (selling drugs), you’re not going to throw dope or run every time you see a car that’s not marked. They’re looking, don’t get me wrong. And in some cases, we catch ’em sleeping, not paying attention. But it buys you a few more seconds,” he said. “The idea is they get just a little bit closer than a marked unit, and sometimes even a second or two is helpful … you’re not fooling anyone but it will get you a little closer and buy you a second or two of hesitation.”
Charney, now with the CCRB, was the plaintiff’s attorney in the landmark stop-and-frisk case that ended the practice in New York. It was the same case where Mayor Adams — then a state senator, testified that he had a sit-down with then New York Gov. David Paterson and the NYPD commissioner at the time, Ray Kelly, regarding a stop-and-frisk bill.
“I think this time around, we really need to learn from the lessons of the past and make sure that there is going to be real accountability and oversight for these officers. And frankly, any officers in the police department,” Charney said.
Giacalone said Adams’ first test will come with the unit’s first high-profile use of force.
“When something goes bad, and always something will happen … whether a situation goes sideways, or there’s a questionable shooting, going after people with guns and violent crimes, things will happen. Does Adams have the stomach to deal with what comes next? That’s the whole thing.”
CNN’s Brynn Gingras contributed to this report.