In 1990s New York, Eric Adams was a truth-teller, a brave cop who dared to say what it was like to be a Black man inside Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s NYPD. He was shot at, surveilled, dubbed a “loose cannon” and “an offense against the city” by the tabloids, but way before most New Yorkers were ready to hear it, Adams called out police racism and brutality. Soon the names Louima, Diallo and Dorismond would make those problems too obvious to ignore. Adams didn’t stop when his 22-year NYPD career ended in 2006. As a state senator, he was among the first officials to raise concerns over the rising number of stop-and-frisk encounters during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reign. Just last week, as Brooklyn borough president, he held an event at Borough Hall to honor a Brooklyn native pepper-sprayed by police during a traffic stop in Virginia.

The issue of policing is central to the 2021 New York City mayor’s race, which comes amid a spike in gun violence and at a time when the role of the police is very much in question. Though challengers like Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, and Dianne Morales have expressed support for cutting the police budget while beefing up social services, Adams and Yang have emphasized the role of police in preserving public safety.

And though Adams brings hard-won credibility to the conversation about police reform, his embrace of “precision policing” could be at odds with those goals.

After the rise and fall of “broken windows” policing and in the aftermath of stop-and-frisk, the notion of “precision” policing sounds pretty good: Instead of hassling law-abiding people, why not focus police activity on the bad guys?

The problem, says New York Civil Liberties Union senior policy counsel Michael Sisitzky, is “how imprecise—ironically—the term ‘precision policing’ is.”

Over the course of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, as the phrase became a buzzword, it was applied to a wide and shifting mix of police tactics and strategies—some of them at the heart of current criticisms of the NYPD.

“It can be spun in any way that folks want to talk about it,” he says. “It’s a term that kind of covers up the fact that it often pertains to some of the very same disparate and aggressive policing of communities of color that we’ve seen with other NYPD policing tactics.”

Bratton’s baby

“Precision policing” has been a favorite term of the de Blasio administration. Mayor de Blasio’s first police commissioner, William Bratton, took credit for developing the approach during his second stint running the NYPD, from 2014 to 2016. Yet even Bratton has been vague about explaining what it actually means.

“Precision policing ensures that police use connectivity more than enforcement and that when enforcement is necessary, it is accurately focused. Ideally, as well, precision policing makes every police-citizen interaction an act of collaboration,” Bratton and a former NYPD colleague, Jon Murad, wrote in City Journal in 2018. “There is no singular approach, however. Precision policing is an organizing principle that can work anywhere, by embracing local culture, history, environment, geography, size, demographics, and politics. Its two primary operational components—focused crime-and-disorder enforcement and neighborhood policing—can be expanded or contracted as necessary.”

Adding to the fuzziness, some fans of precision policing have described it as a geographic strategy: In an homage to Bratton when he left the de Blasio administration, Crain’s referred to it as an approach that “focuses enforcement on crime hot spots,” and Bratton said in 2016 that the Summer All Out program, which flooded high-crime areas with officers, was an example of precision policing.

Other figures, like de Blasio himself, have described it as focused not on places but on specific people. “With 11,000 fewer New Yorkers arrested while crime continues to drop, NYPD has proven we can use precision policing to hone in on the few individuals responsible for the majority of crime in our city,” the mayor said in 2016.

Making the term even less precise is the fact that precision policing has been applied to a broad array of public safety issues under de Blasio.

“[T]his precision that we’re detailing doesn’t just apply to gun violence,” said Dermot Shea, then an NYPD deputy commissioner and now the top cop, in 2016. “It’s the same individuals, whether groups, gangs, crews – that their day job is stealing cars, robbing people, etcetera.” In 2016, the de Blasio administration announced an anti-domestic violence initiative that would “use precision policing to identify and target chronic domestic violence offenders.” Police officials have also referred to the NYPD’s controversial use of nuisance abatement laws as a “valuable precision policing tool,” and Bratton called a crackdown on about 20 nightclubs in order to reduce knife violence “definitely a form of predictive policing, precision policing.”

But Sisitzky says it’s unclear that a single policing strategy is appropriate or effective in circumstances as disparate as domestic violence and car theft. It’s also uncertain how precise those applications really are. “It’s supposed to be informed by specific intelligence, by focusing enforcement on patterns that get analyzed or algorithms that locate hotspots or that predict areas that could need resources,” he explains.

“That all sounds reasonable, at first glance,” he continues. “But you look at what that means in practice as they talk about predicting hotspots and precise areas to focus resources, it often relies on algorithms that have bias baked into the process.” Neighborhoods that are more heavily patrolled will appear to have more crime, for instance, regardless of whether that’s actually the case.

Even Bratton, writing in City Journal in 2018, highlighted this concern. “[B]ecause minorities are disproportionately the victims and perpetrators of violent crime in America’s major urban centers,” he and Murad wrote, “a possibility arises that focused enforcement will eventually be subject to objections about disparate impact.”

Ganging up on gangs

In his campaign platform, Adams calls for “intense, on the ground police work, targeting known shooters with precision policing tactics.” He’s also made the case for that approach in media appearances. “We know who the shooters are in our city,” Adams told the WBAI Max & Murphy Show in November. “And so by using precision policing, you can use an aggressive form of precision policing, without harming the justice that is associated with proper policing.”

Adams’s campaign did not respond to requests to flesh out the details of his approach to precision policing, so it’s impossible to say which elements of de Blasio’s program would be carried over to an Adams administration. What is clear is that gang enforcement will continue to be a major focus of the precision strategy.

“We know that gangs are not only shooting themselves, but that innocent people are being caught in the crossfire,” Adams told Bloomberg News in February. “We need to go after the leaders, bring long-term RICO criminal actions against them. Breaking up the crews and really zeroing in on these gangs—what we call precision policing.”

NYPD data indicates gangs are indeed an important and growing part of violence in the city. The department classified 8 percent of murders as “gang/organized crime-related” in 2016; by 2020, the gang-related share of murders was just shy of 20 percent—the actual number of gang killings increased 244 percent.

The NYPD contends that Operation Crew Cut, a gang crackdown launched in 2012, reduced gang shootings and murders significantly. However, the NYPD’s approach to gangs has generated serious civil liberties concerns. In a 2018 lawsuit, the NAACP said the NYPD’s gang database, which is reported to contain more than 18,000 names, “indiscriminately designates thousands of New Yorkers as members of local street gangs or crews,” a list that is “overinclusive, racially discriminatory, and likely error-ridden.”

Critics have also sounded alarms about the massive gang sweeps that became a trend under Bratton and continued under subsequent commissioners. The NYPD itself has simultaneously—and perhaps contradictorily—boasted of the broad impact of the raids and extolled their supposed precision.

“[L]ast year we conducted about 100 targeted takedowns; medium and long-term investigations into gang and crew violence, narcotics flowing, and other criminal activities. And we have locked up somewhere north of 1,000 people in these takedowns. That kind of precision policing is what is going to keep New York City on the right track,” Commissioner James O’Neill, who succeeded Bratton, said in 2017. “We’ve zeroed in on a relatively small population of people who commit most of the violent crimes in the City. We’re picking them off one by one, in many cases, dozens by dozens.”

Critics have presented research indicating that flimsy legal pretexts were used to link people to one another and to criminal activity in some of the large-scale gang busts. “Disguised as ‘precision policing,’ the NYPD executes military-style gang takedowns that target low-income communities of color across New York City,” the NAACP said in 2018. Referring to the takedowns and the database, the organization said, “These practices result in imprecise policing, racial profiling, and sweeping civil liberties violations that disproportionately harm communities of color.”

Many of those arrested in the gang sweeps end up sentenced to long prison terms that indicate involvement in a serious crime. But some do not. Of the 48 people picked up in a 2015 bust of the Young Gunnaz and 18 Park gangs, at least seven were sentenced to time served, some with probation. Same goes for at least four of the 19 people arrested during the 2017 bust of the Slut gang, and at least 22 of the 120 swept up in the big 2016 raid targeting the 2Fly YGz and Big Money Bosses gangs. Back in 2014, 19 members of the River Park Towers Young Gunnerz were arrested; four were sentenced to time-served plus community supervision. Court records for a fifth defendant in that raid stipulate, “There was no evidence in this case that defendant was a member of the RPT YGz gang or any other gang.”

A time for precision

John Eterno, a retired NYPD captain who teaches at Molloy College and was a vocal critic of Bloomberg-era police strategies, believes precision policing represents a break from the department’s past. Broken Windows led to huge numbers of police encounters, he tells City Limits. “Precision policing is just the opposite. We focus on the bad guy. You focus on career criminals. You focus on really, really bad people instead of throwing this wide net on the entire population.”

However, Eterno stresses that genuine community engagement and reliable crime data—two things he says the NYPD has often failed to generate—are necessary for precision policing to work. And even then, the strategy has limits. “In policing, whenever you go too far with something, something bad happens,” Eterno says. “Police become very crime-fighting oriented as opposed to due-process oriented. They become more focused on crime-fighting than people’s rights.”

The well-known civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel, an Adams ally, believes the candidate understands the need for deeper police reform. “Without a doubt in my mind, when Eric is the mayor, New Yorkers will get a different NYPD. It would be more respectful of constitutional rights, of civil liberties, and at the same time would keep New Yorkers safe.” Fighting gun violence is important, Siegel says, and precision in policing is possible. Plus, he has told Adams that if his policing policies violate New Yorkers liberties, “’I’m going to end up suing you.’”

“And we laugh, but he understands that,” the lawyer continues. “And that could be a little deterrent.”

Adams’s public-safety platform is about more than precision policing. He also wants to free up more cops to fight crime by civilianizing some clerical and transportation tasks now performed by armed officers, and recruit more officers of color. He says he’ll create an outside system for cops to safely report colleagues who are corrupt or brutal, and make public the list of cops who are under monitoring for bad behavior. When it comes to gun violence, Adams wants to team up with neighboring states and use spot checks at bus and train stations to staunch the flow of illegal weapons.

Perhaps most important, Adams indicates he is interested in using precision policing not just to arrest people but to deliver services to get people out of gangs, and he’s said he wants to fund a comprehensive violence interruption and crisis management system.

It’s unclear, however, what mix of carrot and stick his NYPD would employ. And some police reform advocates say his approach is not the kind of change New York needs. “His reform proposals mainly involve such approaches as increased diversity, more training, and different forms of so-called community policing — old wine in new bottles,” wrote Bob Gangi, executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, in an email. These are “measures that experience & research have shown do virtually nothing to reduce on the ground objectionable police practices.”

At the very least, with roughly 30 years of experience in media messaging, Adams could say more about what “precision” means to him.

“We’ve seen mission creep with any NYPD program or set of techniques,” Sisitzky says. So “it’s important for anyone setting out a vision for policing to be really clear about what they mean.”