'CHANGE HOW WE POLICE': Commissioner Dermot Shea says the NYPD can reform from within, explaining, 'We can do it with brains, we can do it with guile, we can move away from brute force.'

Seeing to mend a frayed relationship with residents following weeks of protests against police brutality, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced June 15 that the NYPD had disbanded its plainclothes Anti-Crime Unit. 

The roughly 600-officer contingent has historically been involved in proportionately more use-of-force incidents and police-involved shootings than uniformed officers.

‘Moving Forward’

As city, state and Federal efforts to curb police abuses grow following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer and the widespread public outcry that followed, Mr. Shea said it was essentially up to the NYPD itself to maintain what he called its “culture of excellence” and reform from within. 

“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 with guile, we can move away from brute force,” he said.  

The unit, which became notorious within some African-American and Latino neighborhoods for its sometimes unshackled approach to law enforcement, has been involved in some of the department’s most-notorious incidents, to which Mr. Shea alluded. 

“They do amazing work, they truly do. They put their lives on the line day and night in this city, going after, by the nature of what they do, people that carry guns every day,” the Commissioner said. “As a result of that, they get involved in a number of police-involved shootings.”

According to the NYPD’s “2018 Use of Force Report,” the most recent available, just over half of the shooting incidents involving officers—53.8 percent—involved plainclothes officers. It is not clear whether all of those officers formed part of the anti-crime unit. 

The report noted that in prior years, “the number of discharging personnel in plainclothes assignments has generally been higher.”

Tactical Shift

In announcing the dissolution of the Anti-Crime Unit, itself a descendant of the Street Crime Unit that was disbanded in 2002, Commissioner Shea said the move represented a change in the NYPD's tactical approaches, with the department increasingly making use of ShotSpotter, data, video and DNA and other technology and evidence to build “prosecutable cases.” 

But he acknowledged the uncertainty that accompanies such a radical change in policing tactics. “This is not without risk,” he said, particularly with violent crime citywide increasing. 

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, condemned the move for that reason. 

“Anti-Crime’s mission was to protect New Yorkers by proactively preventing crime, especially gun violence,” the union leader said in a statement. “Shootings and murders are both climbing steadily upward, but our city leaders have clearly decided that proactive policing isn’t a priority anymore. They chose this strategy. They will have to reckon with the consequences.”

Crime has gone up measurably in the last few weeks, with the city and the NYPD contending with a rash of shootings and killings.

Murders Up 31 Over '19 

Through June 7, 153 people had been killed, significantly more than the 122 murdered through the same period last year. Shootings were up 22 percent, with 363 incidents recorded, compared to 297 last year. 

Advocates welcomed the move, with the Legal Aid Society saying that the Anti-Crime Unit’s dissolution should be a preface to downsizing the department, with savings invested to address shortcomings in community resources.

"There is no better place to start reducing the NYPD's headcount than by disbanding the Anti-Crime Unit, an outfit infamous for employing hyper-aggressive policing techniques to brutalize New Yorkers—mostly those from communities of color—and to defy their basic constitutional rights,” a statement from the organization said. “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.”

Although Commissioner Shea did not address reducing the department’s footprint, he said the unit’s dissolution could work to renew trust in the department from communities that bore the brunt of some of its past practices.

Closing a 'Frisk' Chapter 

“What we always struggle with as police executives is not keeping crime down, it’s keeping crime down and keeping the community working with us. And I think those two things at times have been at odds. I would consider this in the realm as closing one of the last chapters of stop, question and frisk,” he said. 

The Anti-Crime officers will be redeployed “into a variety of assignments” such as neighborhood policing and in Detective bureaus, Mr. Shea said. 

The department will continue to employ plainclothes officers including those assigned to surveillance and narcotics task forces. Anti-crime officers will also continue to work in the city’s transit system, he said.

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