The NYPD’s elite anti-crime units — plainclothes teams that focus on gun arrests and stopping violent crimes that have been dogged by accusations of using heavy-handed tactics in brown and black communities — are officially a thing of the past.
The high-risk units — one for each of the city’s 77 police precincts and nine Police Service Areas that cover public housing — will be disbanded and all 600 cops reassigned, the city’s top cop announced Monday.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said he personally made the decision to banish the units, which have been responsible for a “disproportionate” number of shootings and misconduct complaints made against the New York Police Department in their decadeslong history.
He called it a “seismic shift” that will have an immediate effect — a change made to ease the friction in police-community relations.
“We must do it in a manner that builds trust between the officers and the community they serve,” he said. “I would consider this in the realm of closing one of the last chapters of stop, question and frisk.”
The recent groundswell of anti-police brutality protests over the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd, killed by a white cop who pressed his knee on the black man’s neck for nearly nine agonizing minutes, had nothing to do with the decision, Shea added.
“This is a policy shift coming from me, personally,” he said. “I think it’s time to move forward and change how we police in this city. We can do it with brains. We can do it with guile. We can move away from brute force.”
The officers will be moved to handle other responsibilities, Shea said, and the department will still use plainclothes cops in other capacities.
“When you look at the number of anti-crime officers that operate within New York City, and you look at a disproportionate, quite frankly, percentage of complaints, shootings, and they are doing exactly what is asked of them. I think we can do better,” he said.
Shea and the NYPD have been facing a broad outcry about police tactics as thousands of New Yorkers flooded the streets over the past two weeks to demand reform in the name of Floyd. Similar protests have been held across the country with a broad coalition of activists, elected officials and marchers calling for a national movement to defund police departments and create new models built around community policing.
In New York City, reformers have called for slashing the NYPD’s budget by as much as $1 billion. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has agreed to cut some of the NYPD’s $6 billion budget and funnel it into youth summer employment programs canceled in the economic fallout from the coronavirus shutdown, hasn’t yet specified how much he’ll siphon from the NYPD.
But the mayor praised Shea’s unexpected announcement, tweeting, “Your city hears you. Actions, not words.”
Civil rights lawyer Joel Berger said the move to disband the sometimes troubled anti-crime units was overdue.
“The anti crime units are just a legacy of street crime from the days of (ex-Mayor Rudy) Giuliani, with the motto ‘We own the night,’ just under a different name,” Berger said. “It was never really designed to reduce crime. It was designed as a form of social control to show people in minority neighborhoods who is in charge, just like stop and frisk.”
He was referring to the slogan of the defunct Street Crime Unit. Four members of that squad shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 shots in the Bronx in 1999.
Anti-crime unit officers are often thought of as the “cowboys” of the NYPD’s police precincts, and their officers are frequent targets for police misconduct and false arrest lawsuits.
The two officers who shot and killed 16-year-old Kimani Gray in Brooklyn in 2013 because they thought the teen had a gun were also assigned to an anti-crime unit. The officers, who cuffed Kimani as he lay dying in the street, were never indicted. The city later paid his family $250,000 to settle a lawsuit.
Another anti-crime unit cop, David “Bullethead” Grieco, from the 75th Precinct, has been sued nearly three dozen times. As of last December, the city had paid more than $500,000 to settle 17 suits against him.
In the Bronx, the anti-crime unit in the 52nd Precinct faced scrutiny after a dozen gun cases were said to have been compromised, ending in dismissals or plea deals.
The Legal Aid Society called the units “infamous for employing hyper-aggressive policing techniques to brutalize New Yorkers — mostly those from communities of color — and to defy their basic constitutional rights.”
“This is welcome news, but New Yorkers will not be better served if these officers are simply reassigned, carrying with them the same bad habits that earned Anti-Crime its dismal reputation,” Legal Aid said in a statement. “The city must drastically reduce the NYPD’s headcount and use those funds to invest in communities.”
Others critical of Shea’s decision said cutting the anti-crime units would likely mean more mayhem in the city.
“People are gonna die because of this. How many is hard to tell, but definitely some lives are going to be lost,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former cop. “But I think it’s a hard thing to argue with. We’re on an expressway heading in this direction and it can’t be stopped.”
He called the decision a “cold calculation” that an increase in murder is worth fewer civilian deaths and injuries at the hands of police officers.
“The calculation in the big cities is, as long as it’s not at the hands of the police, you can have carnage,” O’Donnell said.
Anti-crime officers are typically the “hardcore cops” of the department, who respond fastest to emergencies in minority communities, and getting rid of them would shift the NYPD’s focus to providing service and aid.
“It’s the end of policing in the city, because these people did a disproportionate amount of it,” he said. “You will never get this back even if you need it. The cops will never go back to taking risks and putting their freedom on the line. This is never going to happen. We’ve turned that corner now.”
Patrick Lynch, the head of the Police Benevolent Association, blasted the decision to disband the unit Monday.
“Anti-Crime’s mission was to protect New Yorkers by proactively preventing crime, especially gun violence. Shooting and murders are both climbing steadily upward, but our city leaders have clearly decided that proactive policing isn’t a priority anymore,” Lynch said. “They chose this strategy. They will have to reckon with the consequences.”
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