Eric Adams’s Gun Violence Plan Looks a Lot Like Bill de Blasio’s
Despite his reputation for breaking new ground, Adams’s gun-violence plan largely rehashes New York City’s already tough-on-crime status quo.
Chris Gelardi, | February 24, 2022
This article was produced as a collaboration between Bolts and New York Focus, a publication that covers New York State government and politics. You can sign up for their newsletter.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has kicked off his tenure by going all in on gun violence. Last month, he released his “blueprint” for tackling the problem. One of the new mayor’s first major policy initiatives, which has earned him rare positive reviews, Adams has heavily promoted the plan, including by hosting President Joe Biden for a high-profile tour and press conference.
Adams characterizes his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” as taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. The 15-page document describes gun violence as “flow[ing] from many rivers,” and asserts that ending it “will require both intervention and prevention”—that is to say, strict law enforcement coupled with measures to address gun violence’s economic and public health causes.
Adams has been cheered for charting a novel middle ground on the issue, tougher on crime but also willing to entertain reforms that complement law enforcement crackdowns. His approach is said to signal a turning tide against the demands of Black Lives Matter protests, evidence that municipal officials are finally pushing back against activists’ ambitious proposals to cut the scope and budget of the police.
But closer inspection reveals little new about Adams’s plan.
The aspects of Adams’s blueprint that focus on heavy policing and prosecution directly mirror plans put forward by former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who—despite his vocal opposition to stop-and-frisk tactics and occasional criticism of the NYPD—largely endorsed aggressive policing and prosecution tactics targeting gun violence.
The parts of Adams’s blueprint that focus on community engagement, economic opportunity, and mental health also borrow heavily from de Blasio’s administration. Unlike most of the enforcement measures, though, the violence prevention policies currently include few details, and the mayor hasn’t set a timeline for when to expect them.
Despite speculation that Adams represents a new era of mindful toughness on violence, the most likely course for public safety policy in New York City, at least in the short run, may be more of the same. While Adams’s victory has been framed as part of a backlash to recent criminal justice reforms, his plan for addressing gun violence, largely a rehash of his predecessor’s ideas, underscores how little has really changed since the 2020 protests.
Adams’s office did not respond to New York Focus and Bolts’s emailed questions.
In the Courts
In January 2016, then-Mayor de Blasio launched Project Fast Track, a joint plan with the New York City Police Department and the state court system meant to “drive down the remaining gun violence” in the city.
At the time, shootings and homicides were hovering at their lowest levels in decades (and they have largely remained near those record lows, even with recent year-over-year rises in gun violence). Mayor de Blasio believed that a small number of “evildoers” were behind the remaining gun violence and suggested that the city could further curb shootings if it just dealt with those bad eggs—mainly by putting them behind bars.
“I believe there are too many situations where someone who belonged in prison didn’t get to prison, or someone who didn’t belong on the streets remained on the streets,” he said at the press conference unveiling the plan.
Project Fast Track created a new “Gun Violence Suppression Division” within the NYPD, gave prosecutors new tools to expedite gun cases and increased funding for DNA testing in gun cases. Its main feature—reviving a defunct specialized gun court in Brooklyn—also laid a strong foundation for a high-volume carceral approach to gun proliferation. The original gun court had bumped up the average sentences for gun cases four-fold in its first seven months of operation in 2003, and only 4 percent of defendants got through with no jail time—outcomes de Blasio saw as “successes” that could help drive down shootings.
But gun court isn’t for shooters, murderers, or gun traffickers; their cases make it to criminal court. It’s only meant to expedite and maximize the punishment of those caught carrying a gun without a license—including many young people in high-violence, over-policed neighborhoods who carry for protection. For her 2019 book, Charged, journalist Emily Bazelon examined 200 case files and quarterly NYPD reports in the early days of the revived gun court. She found that two-thirds of defendants were in their teens or 20s, 70 percent had no prior felony convictions, and 75 percent were facing their first gun charges. Nearly nine in 10 were Black in a borough that is one-third Black.
This dynamic—sweeping up gun carriers in a crackdown on shooters—is a feature embedded in broad gun policing initiatives, which Bazelon likened to the war on drugs, with its now widely-cited racial disparities and contributions to mass incarceration. Indeed, the number of people in New York City sent to jail or prison on gun convictions far exceeds the number of shootings.
Data compiled by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice show that, in the three years leading up to Project Fast Track, there were 3,412 shootings and 4,143 gun-related convictions that resulted in someone spending time behind bars or being sentenced to time served — a 21 percent difference. That gap widened to 52 percent in the three years after the start of Project Fast Track.
Six years after de Blasio announced Project Fast Track, Mayor Adams announced his own plan for combating gun violence. Both Adams’s rhetoric and approach recall de Blasio’s earlier effort.
“We will not surrender our city to the violent few,” he said in his speech unveiling his blueprint. Like de Blasio, he also wants to turn gun cases around as quickly as possible. He has called on district attorneys to move gun charges to the front of their docket; he plans to speed up DNA testing in gun cases; and he wants to increase the number of judges involved in the state gun violence initiative.
Adams has said that he wants to crack down on “trigger pullers,” but his blueprint builds on de Blasio’s punitive approach to gun possession. In the document, he urges state legislators to pass laws that allow district attorneys to try 16- and 17-year-olds caught with firearms in criminal court rather than family court if they refuse to tell police “where they got the gun,” and to allow prosecutors to charge people with trafficking if they’re caught with three or more unlicensed guns. He also promises to appoint judges dedicated to “keeping violent criminals off New York City streets.” (In New York, simple possession of an illegal gun and ammunition outside of one’s home is considered a violent felony.)
Adams’s blueprint also ups the ante on tough prosecution tactics by taking aim at recent criminal justice reforms. Perhaps most notably, Adams is throwing his political weight toward Albany to pressure legislators to further roll back the 2019 bail reform law by implementing a “dangerousness standard,” which would allow judges to take violence and public safety into consideration when deciding whether to set pretrial bail. Before bail reform, judges would often use high cash bail as a way to incarcerate people they viewed as dangerous; now, with the outlawing of cash bail for many offenses, bail reform critics like Adams argue that judges need a way to keep people locked up while court proceedings play out.
Many bail reform proponents, citing flaws in existing programs that claim to objectively assess dangerousness, argue that allowing such discretion opens the door to incarceration based on racial and other prejudices. Adams responds that training judges and monitoring data on judicial outcomes can head off such concerns.
Though not a part of his gun violence initiatives, de Blasio also favored amending bail reform with a dangerousness standard.
In the Streets
Four years after the announcement of Project Fast Track, the coronavirus pandemic hit, followed by a rise in gun violence in urban areas across the United States, including New York City. To supplement his 2016 plan, de Blasio announced additional initiatives—the End Gun Violence Plan in July 2020 and Safe Summer NYC in April 2021—from which, like Project Fast Track, Adams’s blueprint borrows heavily.
Beefed up policing was a mainstay of de Blasio’s later plans—as it is for Adams’s blueprint. In 2016, de Blasio had created a Gun Violence Suppression Division, a mostly detective unit within the NYPD tasked with tracking down illegal guns and ushering gun cases through the courts, and he doubled down on that in 2020 by shifting “detective and investigative resources” to areas with increased shootings. The following year, he announced that he was shifting 200 cops from administrative assignments to patrol ahead of an anticipated summer uptick in gun violence. Adams has announced that he is expanding the Gun Violence Suppression Division and will go “unit by unit” to get as many NYPD officers as possible out from behind desks and onto the streets.
In 2020, de Blasio announced that he was focusing the increased foot patrols in areas with high rates of shootings, and he announced the following year that he was deploying a “precise police presence” to the 100 blocks with the most gun violence. Adams has announced that, this month, he will send new Neighborhood Safety Teams to the areas with the highest rates of violence.
The Neighborhood Safety Teams are a resurrection of the 600-member Anti-Crime Unit, which the NYPD disbanded in June 2020 after years of outcry about the plainclothes unit’s high number of civilian complaints and killings. Many saw the unit as a holdover of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk-focused days, and worry that the Neighborhood Safety Teams will engage in the same kind of racialized abuse.
Last month, the New York Post obtained a memo listing the 30 precincts and four public housing patrol areas where the new units are set to deploy; all but one of the precincts are majority Black and Latino, according to a Bolts and New York Focus analysis of demographic data aggregated by journalist John Keefe.
Adams is also following in de Blasio’s footsteps by siccing the NYPD’s post-September 11, 2001, counterterrorism apparatus—the subject of numerous scandals involving the surveillance, targeting, and entrapment of Muslim New Yorkers—on the gun violence issue. “We need … a 9/11-type response to address the domestic terror that is pervasive in this city and country,” Adams said during his press conference with Biden.
In his 2020 plan, de Blasio deployed the Critical Response Command and Strategic Response Group—notoriously aggressive NYPD units founded to combat terrorism—to police for guns “across the city.” Adams seeks to implement police “spot checks” at transit stations to intercept guns coming into the five boroughs and use unspecified “new technology” to “identify dangerous individuals” and detect guns. Though not explicitly mentioned in his gun violence blueprint, Adams has also announced plans to expand the NYPD’s use of facial recognition and other surveillance tech, the cause of uproars over privacy, inaccuracy, and civil rights issues in other municipalities.
Adams has acknowledged New York City’s history of racist and abusive policing. He asserts that the NYPD can conduct surveillance “without violating people’s rights,” and that the Neighborhood Safety Teams will be different from the Anti-Crime Unit because they will have “enhanced training and oversight,” wear body cameras, and not patrol undercover.
“I know based on the failures of the past how our criminal justice system was unfair, it was biased, and in some cases, it was racist,” he said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this month. But his personal “history on fighting for reform” should assure New Yorkers that he can balance safety and justice, he said.
Adams has also vowed to increase NYPD coordination with county, state, and federal law enforcement and prosecution in ways that almost directly mirror Project Fast Track and de Blasio’s 2021 plan. It’s unclear what much of the the increased coordination will look like in practice, but the blueprint calls for working more closely with the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; emphasizing state and interstate working groups, task forces, and gun tracing efforts; and holding weekly meetings with district attorneys and the police commissioner.
In the Community
Of course, according to Adams, prosecution and policing only make up half of his blueprint. “It’s not just about locking people up, it’s about picking people up,” he said at his press conference with the president. “It’s about rebuilding our society.”
But the preventative aspects of his plan are vague, and include few measures that de Blasio didn’t undertake with his initiatives.
Adams, like de Blasio, has put significant rhetorical energy into boosting the city’s Crisis Management System, which, in addition to other programs, employs well-connected members of communities with high rates of violence—known as violence interrupters—to intercede in local feuds before they break out in gunfire. Though research on the effectiveness of violence interrupter programs in reducing gun violence is incomplete, what exists suggests that these targeted initiatives can be highly effective in stopping shootings on a hyperlocal level.
Yet it’s unclear what Adams proposes to do to further nurture this alternative to policing; his plan only says that his administration will “build on the already-successful work of CMS violence interrupters and ensure that they have the resources needed to do their work.” In 2020, de Blasio proposed to “increase coordination” between the NYPD and violence interrupters, and the following year, he promised to double the violence interrupter workforce.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which oversees the city’s gun violence initiatives, did not respond to emailed questions about Adams’s plan and the additional resources de Blasio committed to violence interrupters.
Adams’s blueprint, like de Blasio’s, also calls for the expansion of economic and mental health programs specifically aimed at curbing gun violence.
“We know the best antidote to crime is a career,” Adams said in the unveiling speech. His blueprint calls for the expansion of community hiring efforts for youth. And he recently announced that, as part of the gun violence plan, he is expanding the city’s summer youth employment program to provide 100,000 temporary jobs to teens and young adults—roughly a third more than normal years and nearly three times higher than 2020, when gun violence rose and the pandemic took its toll on the city budget. According to Chalkbeat, more than 150,000 people apply for the program each year.
And when it comes to mental health, in 2015, de Blasio launched ThriveNYC, which has spent more than $1 billion to create over 50 initiatives to offer mental health resources to New Yorkers. Adams has promised to build on that program and the shortcomings of its implementation; his blueprint says his administration will reallocate funds “spent on existing programming … into areas of direct need,” including additional homelessness and mental health crisis support.
But it’s unclear how that, like much of his blueprint, differs from what de Blasio put into place. As more gun-seeking cops hit New York City streets in coming weeks, it remains to be seen what the rest of Adams’s war on gun violence will look like and whether it will truly break from the past.