NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Brooklyn Borough President On Fighting Police Brutality From The Inside


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Like so many Americans and people around the world, I was horrified watching the video of the police officer - now charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder - who had his knee on George Floyd's neck for over eight minutes, keeping the weight on Floyd's neck even after he died. My heart was broken. It was broken again over the weekend as I watched peaceful protests against the death of Floyd and other black men and women who died at the hands of police become violent confrontations in cities around America, including Philadelphia, where I live, and Brooklyn, where I grew up.

Philadelphia has been preparing to allow businesses that were closed due to the pandemic to reopen this Friday. Now in the heart of our business and shopping district that also has medical offices, food markets, pharmacies and many apartments, stores have had their windows broken, been looted, some set on fire and destroyed. Just a few days ago, the streets were pretty empty, with people practicing social distancing. By the weekend, in Philly and cities around the country, thousands of people were in the streets, which public health officials fear could lead to a surge in cases of COVID-19.

We asked Eric Adams to join us because he has insights about this moment from several perspectives. When he was 15, he was arrested and beaten by police. He later became a police officer with the intent of helping to reform the police. In 1995, he co-founded the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care to work from within the NYPD against police brutality and racial profiling. After serving on the force for 22 years, retiring as a captain, he served in the New York State Senate for seven years. He was elected Brooklyn borough president in 2013 and is now serving his second term as Brooklyn's CEO. Brooklyn has been a pandemic hot spot and the location of large protests, some of which turned violent.

Eric Adams, welcome back to FRESH AIR. We're recording this late Sunday afternoon. We don't know what will happen Sunday night. What are your concerns about the actions of the police and the protesters in Brooklyn?

ERIC ADAMS: Many levels, Terry. I have mixed emotions. No. 1, I'm extremely excited and pleased to see our young people taking to the streets. Historically, the winds of change, they have always been blown by young adults. Young people are very much a part of the movement. And we're seeing that they are lifting their voices. And so I'm happy to see that, but I'm also concerned because embedded into a righteous movement is a group of well-trained people who - their goal is not police abuse but disruption. They're trained on incendiary devices, how to make them. They're trained on how to agitate. Some of them are carrying firearms. And if we're not careful, they will hijack this righteous movement, and that alarms me and concerns me.

GROSS: Who do you think those well-trained people are and who do you think trained them? What do you know about that?

ADAMS: It's a combination. Some of them, believe it or not - this strange marriage has been created between right-wing militias who have infiltrated the bodies of some of these movements across our country and even here in New York, and others are those who are just believers that we need to burn down our cities. I know that they had groups here staking out the city to see how police move and where police are located.

I've been debriefed on some of the people who have been involved. Like, one car we found in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, had several Molotov cocktails and a tank full of gasoline to make incendiary devices. The young lady who pulled up at the 88th Precinct, what happened to have been one of my precincts as an officer, she pulled up and threw a Molotov cocktail at a police vehicle.

We're seeing jeeps burned and vans burned. And the young African Americans who are fighting police abuse all across the country, they are doing it in a peaceful fashion. And if we're not careful, those who have infiltrated these peaceful, righteous groups are going to put these young people in a very harmful state.

GROSS: What's your reaction, as a former police officer, to seeing police precincts in Brooklyn under attack? I mean, protesters tried to breach and enter a police precinct in Brooklyn, and outside Brooklyn's 88th Precinct, there was another large clash with crowds. What's your reaction to that? Like, how do you think police should be handling it when their precincts come under attack?

ADAMS: And that's so important because look at the last series of marches that really put in place serious changes across the country. When you looked at those marches, you did not see people go into the 88th Precinct and other precincts in this city; you saw the organizers, the marches, you saw them stop businesses, stop traffic, maybe stop transportation. They were doing die-ins. They were doing real things to allow their voices to be heard. And that's why we have to ask, what's different here? How did we go from those extremely important ways of being heard to a point that we are actually trying to take over precincts, that we're firebombing vehicles?

I was out last night at 1:30 in the morning on Flatbush Avenue and saw the number of businesses that were destroyed. And as I went into Clinton Hill, I saw property owners, people who actually own homes, I saw their homes damaged as well. And so we must make sure that we have the right balance between public protection from our police officers and to weed out those who are damaging what these young people are doing. I've been speaking with the Black Lives Matters organizers of Brooklyn and others who are part of the righteous pursuit to end police brutality to show them how to distance themselves from those who are trying to hijack their movement.

GROSS: Would you like to see people from Black Lives Matter speaking out against the violence and distancing themselves from it?

ADAMS: Yes, I would. And that is part of the conversation that I've had with some of the leaders. And I understand their concerns because they don't want to give a pathway. Sometimes when you speak out against something, it's manipulated in another fashion, and so they are extremely concerned about that. And we're trying to find a way that they can effectively distance themselves from what they're seeing but, at the same time, keep the focus on the mission of turning around police abuse. But I guess I would like to do that, and that is part of the conversations I've been having with them.

GROSS: And let's get back to the police. I know - like, because we talked about this once before on the show - when you were a police officer, there were times when, during the day, you would be joining protesters against police abuse, and then in the evening, you'd be policing the protesters in your job as a police officer. And people would make assumptions about you as an officer, assumptions that were often not true, about where your sympathies lay. So let's talk about policing right now.

I suspect that a lot of police officers sympathize with the protesters, yet at the same time, cannot allow violence in their cities. They can't allow the destruction of property, although all of that has happened anyways. Talk a little bit from your perspective as a former police officer what you think the police are up against and the kind of difficult decisions they have to make.

ADAMS: That's a great question because - and you're right. The - remember; we recruit police officers from a society that is filled with healthy and toxic individuals. And when you come into the law enforcement arena, many of the individuals who are not suitable to be a police officer, they find root in a culture that really protected even the toxic individuals. The police department - actually, the police departments across America - they have never been good at immediately weeding out those who are not suitable.

To have two of the most important rights that a human being can have in a country like America - the right to take freedom and the right to take away one's life - those are rights that not even the president - thank God, with this president - a president doesn't even have. So when you give someone those rights, you need to have an awesome amount of oversight, an awesome amount of obligation, and we have not done that historically.

And when you look at the video footage - I've been closely watching the video footage, and I've been - I have intentionally went to many of the protests last night. I was - like I said, I was on Flatbush Avenue watching some of the interaction. When you look at the video footage, there's something that is glaring. There is a body of officers who are really suited to do this type of enforcement, and then there's a body of officers that are really not suited to do it.

Now, what do I mean by that? And, Terry, we really need to reexamine how we assign police officers in our country. Everyone who is in the occupation is not suitable for every role in the occupation. There are officers that I, as a platoon commander, I enjoyed having with me when I had to kick in a door to go after someone that was committing a crime, had a gun. But I wouldn't want that same person with me if I was speaking to someone that was trying to talk someone off a ledge or dealing with a hostage situation. And so we don't assign officers based on their abilities to carry out the crafts that are needed in a particular time. Policing basically just brings everyone together. Saying, if you have on a blue uniform, you're suitable to do all the jobs - that is a big mistake, and we need to change that.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Adams. He's the borough president of Brooklyn. He's a former New York City police officer who co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, which was a police reform group against racial profiling and police assaults. He was also assaulted by the police when he was 15. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Adams, and we're talking about the protests over the weekend. At age 15, he was beaten by police. And in the hope of helping reform the policing of black people and neighborhoods, he joined the New York City police and, after 22 years, retired as a captain. He became a state senator in New York and is now serving his second term as Brooklyn Borough president, the CEO of Brooklyn. Brooklyn has been a site of large protests against the death of George Floyd in police hands. It's also been a hot spot in the pandemic.

Were you ever, as a police officer, patrolling a protest that turned violent? And if so, what was that like for you? What were some of the most complicated actions and decisions you had to make?

ADAMS: Extremely complicated, extremely frightening. Even when you put on a blue uniform, you do not take away the fright and flight hard-wiring inside you. And the goal is I go in with the mindset - or whoever I'm working with, I'm asking them before I start it - as a football team goes into a huddle, I go into a huddle and say, listen; we are our brother's keeper. That was the No. 1 thing I told my officers at several protests. I was here in the midst of many of the stop-and-frisk protests, the Abner Louima protest, the Dorismond protest - some of the real height - and I policed under Giuliani's administration and under Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly. We had protests all the time.

What I learned was that if you make sure that the officers know that you are my brother's keeper and if I am going over the edge, if I'm not doing the job the way it's supposed to because my adrenaline is flowing and I am responding instead of being the professional I ought to be, stop me, pause me, pull me to the side, take me, disengage me. And there were times when a person was extremely difficult to deal with - in some cases violent dealing with them - that you have to do the necessary force to terminate the condition.

What you're seeing in some of the videos, you're seeing people handcuffed, and officers are still swinging their baton, and no one is stopping them. We're not teaching de-escalation. We teach de-escalation of the person who's committing the act; we're not teaching de-escalation of the officers who are trying to terminate the act. And I always instructed my officers when I was a sergeant, a lieutenant and a captain the skill of de-escalation and being your brother's keeper to prevent an incident getting out of hand.

GROSS: We've all seen in times during the protests over the weekend when protesters were intentionally provoking the police - throwing things at them, setting their cars on fire. From your perspective as a former police officer who opposes police brutality, who opposes racial profiling, who opposes these murders of black people, what is the response a police officer should have when they are intentionally being violently provoked?

ADAMS: It's so important. And my history - this is my life's work, dealing with police abuse, from being arrested as a young man, being told by civil rights leaders to go into the police department. I'm committed to having effective policing, but I'm also committed to something else. I'm committed to public safety. And in those cases where you see police vehicles being burned, where you see rocks being thrown, those people should be immediately apprehended and arrested. And we have to be swift about it, and we have to be - have a zero-tolerance.

So that zero-tolerance of not allowing police to be abusive must also be a zero-tolerance not to allow people to attack police because that uniform is not the person in the uniform; it's the symbol of our stability. I know it has been a symbol of pain, but it also has been a symbol of the stability of this country and this city. And we need to reform it, but we can never tear down that stability that we use. So I don't go - I'm not part of that group that says disband the police departments. I'm not part of that group that says we can live in a society with no police at all. You do need some form of law and order and not unlawfulness and disorder.

GROSS: Let's talk about what happened to you when you were 15 and that - how that affected your view of the police. I mean, you had been charged with trespassing. Just give us a brief sense of what the charge was.

ADAMS: I was a 15-year-old child. I grew up - part of my childhood was in Bayside High School, when I left Brooklyn before returning. And my brother and I, we were arrested for criminal trespassing. Once the officers took us to the precinct - they picked us up from school, took us to the precinct. And they were filling out the paperwork, and out of nowhere, they said, you feel like a beat down? And they brought the two of us - we thought we were being transported somewhere. But they took us to the lower part of the 103rd Precinct, the same precinct Sean Bell was killed in. And they just started kicking us in the groin, you know, repeatedly.

It was unbelievable. I remember acting like I passed out to get them to stop. The pain was just excruciating, if you can only imagine. And we - you know, I know I urinated blood for a week after that. And I remember every day saying to myself, Terry, that, you know, I'm going to tell my mother if it doesn't stop after the next day, the next day. And eventually, it concluded.

And we never talked about that, my brother and I, until we were adults. And I think until this day, he still is suffering from mental health illness because of that because I experience PTSD. I could not see a police car go by without reliving that moment. I could not see a police show on TV. Every time I heard a siren - can you imagine just having that part of the wiring in your brain? And I think oftentimes police officers that have bad intentions do that to young people to - almost like slave masters used to do horrific things to instill fear into slaves.

And it wasn't until after Randolph Evans was shot and killed that a group of leaders in Brooklyn from the Black United Front told me and 13 others to go into law enforcement. I didn't want to do that. I was a computer programmer. I wanted to open my own firm and become Cisco qualified. But I felt obligated, and it really was a life-changing experience for me, and it allowed me to turn that pain into purpose. And you know what? I finally found the refuge I needed, that I no longer felt the trauma from that beating. I felt as though that demasculation (ph) was behind me because I was using that pain in a way of turning around the lives of people.

GROSS: So you're in a position of understanding the pain that a lot of black people feel when they think about the police. Were police ever a good force in your life before you became an officer? Did they ever help you or protect you?

ADAMS: No. And it's unfortunate that there was always this adversarial relationship with law enforcement. And remember - you know, you don't call the police in South Jamaica, Queens, or Brownsville or East New York to invite them to a party; you call them when someone shot up the party. So when you have a relationship with an entity in your community that is only built on when there is something terribly wrong, you begin to associate pain with the profession.

And so that is why proactive policing is so important in changing - how we utilize our law enforcement community is so important because I didn't have those good stories that some of my colleagues - when I attended Bayside High School and I used to hear - some of the students in the class talked about the good things they did, you know, with the police, how some of them were in the Boy Scouts or was part of the DARE program and just these interactions.

And I was like, what are you talking about? They're cops. Who - (laughter) you know, who has these relationships with cops? And it was difficult because there was nothing, no point of reference of the beauty of having a good relationship with your law enforcement in your community.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Adams, a former NYPD police captain. In 1995, he co-founded the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care to work from within the NYPD against police brutality and racial profiling. He now serves as Brooklyn bureau president. We'll talk more after a break.

And then later, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by Brit Bennett, whose first novel, the bestseller "The Mothers," was optioned by Kerry Washington. And David Bianculli will review three TV shows, one from the new streaming service HBO Max. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Adams. At age 15, he was beaten by police. In the hope of helping reform the policing of black neighborhoods, he joined the New York City Police and, after 22 years, retired as a captain. He became a state senator and is now serving his second term as Brooklyn borough president, the CEO of Brooklyn. Brooklyn has been the site of large protests against the death of George Floyd in police hands. Brooklyn is also a hotspot for the pandemic.

You know, I really do think there's a lot of police officers around the country who are really angry and really furious about what happened to George Floyd. And they're probably suffering too because now they're out on the streets in the middle of a pandemic fighting with people that they don't want to be in confrontation with. What do you think police can do or should do to show their anger at police who behave badly or brutally, or who are, you know, responsible for the deaths of people?

ADAMS: We have to really change the culture of policing. We have police here in the city that put up a white power finger sign. And all the other police officers started cheering and laughing with them. When you have some of the actions of - we almost have to rebuild our law enforcement community because the recruitment effort we did, we focus on law enforcement, again, and not on how we deal with social issues - and build this symbiotic relationship between our policing community.

And then you have to change the culture of really supporting a climate, a healthy climate, where an officer could come forward and report abuse without any form of reprisal. We must refocus and revamp police. And I think this is an opportunity to do so, as we saw in New Jersey some of the police chiefs marching with some of the demonstrators. And something else happened with the Floyd case that some people may have overlooked - it was a significant moment - one, the expeditious fashion in which the police officer was fired, second, how fast the prosecutor indicted.

Now, the indictment itself is troubling to me, which is another conversation. But they moved quickly. The third - the other officers were fired. They should also be arrested. But the mere fact they were fired was a cosmic shift in policing, because the tone is now set that your actions will also - you're responsible for not only for your actions, but the actions of the person who you are near. Standing around watching someone choke to death, you should be held accountable the same way as someone participated in a robbery. They acted in concert. That is how we should treat those officers that are carrying out these actions.

GROSS: I know a lot of people would agree with you that there's been, you know, progress made in how fast these actions were taken. But that doesn't seem to have had any effect on the protests.

ADAMS: And it shouldn't. We have to keep the pressure on. We have a long way to go. And I am - as I stated, I'm excited about these protests because it is as though I've come full circle. I've marched in these protests when we were fighting against stop-and-frisk. I remember looking beside me and seeing these different ethnic groups who peacefully joined with me. I recall that the - in the protests, as you indicated, taking off my jeans and shirt and putting on my police uniforms and feeling as though my day was fulfilled. I felt accomplished. I felt as though I was able to protect the city and, at the same time, force them to allow our police agencies to become who and what they are.

And I think these protests play a significant role, because let's face it, a absence of the Dr. Kings, the SNCCs, the Rosa Parks and so many others, America would not have moved in the area that it should have moved. We would've never signed civil rights bills. We would have never done some of the things that we did. If it wasn't for the women's suffrage movement, we would still probably not have women voting. Hitting the streets and showing you're outraged and not comfortable is something that's part of America as apple pie and Chevrolet. And we need to continue to hit the streets to move America where it ought to go.

GROSS: Right now, given how hot the situation is, do you want to see people continuing to hit the streets?

ADAMS: It's a very delicate balance. I'm really afraid about the COVID-19. As you know, I spent the last 50-plus days sleeping in my office from the time that COVID hit the shores here in New York City. And what we have done around this issue - and the same communities that are dealing with police abuse are the communities that were negatively impacted disproportionately by coronavirus. And so I'm afraid that many of our young people are going to take the infection home to their loved ones, their seniors, their grandmothers. And it is a true concern.

And when I saw people participating in the protest, I did see some who were wearing face mask. But clearly, an overwhelming number of them were not practicing social distancing. I am concerned that, you know, body fluids, being in close proximity is going to have family members that are going to be infected. Young people who are going to leave the protests and go home, they are going to infect their loved ones. And COVID virus is serious, is real. And the same communities that are dealing with police abuse were disproportionately impacted by the lack of government response to coronavirus.

GROSS: I'm obviously really worried about that, too. And, you know, Brooklyn has been a pandemic hotspot. And, you know, in Philly, Philly's preparing to reopen on Friday. Philly was preparing to go yellow. And now, like, who knows what the consequences for the pandemic will be from all the protests over the weekend?

And I'm sure that's true for many cities. Like, we know what happened in New Orleans after Mardi Gras. And this was not a celebratory parade. These were protests. But it's still, in terms of the virus, it can have the same impact of thousands of people in the streets, shoulder-to-shoulder. Many of them were wearing masks. But at that close proximity, you know, who knows? How much of a setback do you fear this will be for Brooklyn, where you are the Brooklyn borough president?

ADAMS: I think it's going to be a significant setback. But what I've learned - I recall after 9/11. And when the Trade Center was attacked and the buildings collapsed, I remember going out to Brownsville, a predominately black community, to talk to the young people and deal with the trauma of the buildings collapsing. And they were playing basketball and just hanging out. And I've told them, did you hear what happened? They said, Eric, we were catching hell when those buildings were up. We didn't have heat at night. We had lead paint. Crime was high. We were unemployed. Those buildings have nothing to do with us.

People can feel so much pain that they become numb to the reality of danger. And I think that's what you're seeing here. Many of these young people have been living in a state of just total hopelessness and don't feel as though another level of trauma is going to do anything to dissipate the trauma that they're experiencing already. And somehow, we have to convince them that life is not about being hopeless, but about being empowered. And while we do that, we have to understand that that is why they are in the streets, not because they want to expose themselves to coronavirus. But they've reached a level of desperation where they're no longer believing society's ability to protect them from a virus or from the virus or police abuse.

GROSS: Were you glad over the weekend that you are no longer a police officer?

ADAMS: No, not at all. I looked forward to being in the eye of the storm. I looked forward to those difficult days when I had to talk someone down from showing a level of anger and understanding what they felt. I was the type of person that I wanted to be the platoon commander that was inside of - in charge of the detail that went out. I knew we were going to allow officers to come back safely. And I knew that the protesters were going to get home safe. And that's the type of leadership we need right now.

And I think that in the police department, we have some amazing men and women who have taken upon this occupation. We need to start rewarding them for their commitment - and not only looking at how good they are at fighting crime, but how good they are at building relationships within the community.

GROSS: Eric Adams, thank you so much for talking with us. And I hope Brooklyn comes through all of this OK.

ADAMS: OK. Be well.

GROSS: Eric Adams is the Brooklyn borough president and a former NYPD police captain. He co-founded the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by Brit Bennett, whose first novel was the bestseller "The Mothers." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "SACRIFICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.