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New York is reinstating the controversial plain clothes police unit

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To New York now, where another violent incident took place last night. A girl, 11 months old, was shot while sitting in a parked car in the Bronx. She's in critical condition. And New York City's new mayor, Eric Adams, has vowed to put an end to the increase in gun violence. Among the strategies, reinstating a controversial part of the police - the plainclothes unit, an anti-crime street unit with officers dressed as civilians. The unit was dismantled in 2020 after years of criticism for its use of force against people of color. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: This time it's going to be different - that's the message Eric Adams has delivered when he talks about reinstating the plainclothes police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ADAMS: We're going to use precision policing to identify the gang members, the crews. We're going to target them.

GARSD: For many New Yorkers, this is a welcome response to the shootings which feel out of control. But the plainclothes police are also a sensitive subject here. They're associated with the stop-and-frisk era, when police stopped and searched people they found suspicious.

JENN BORCHETTA: The anti-crime unit was primarily tasked with doing these stops, and they would do them violently.

GARSD: Jenn Borchetta is a managing director at the legal nonprofit Bronx Defenders. 2011 was the peak of the stop-and-frisk era. NYPD stopped over 680,000 people. Only 9% of them were white, and 88% hadn't committed any crimes. NYPD's use of stop and frisk was later ruled unconstitutional. Many in law enforcement also saw its implementation as problematic. Professor Keith Ross at John Jay College is a former NYPD plainclothes officer. He says there was an excessive emphasis on productivity, on constantly making arrests.

KEITH ROSS: I think most patrol officers who worked during then, if they're going to be honest, they're all going to say they felt that pressure.

GARSD: One big question about these policies is, did they work? In 2011, from over 680,000 NYPD stops, 780 guns were seized. A study by NYU and Columbia found there was a small reduction in crime. And that leads to another question - what was the cost?

KADIATOU DIALLO: Well, I'm Amadou Diallo's mom, and the search (ph) crime unit was responsible for robbing my son's life.

GARSD: In 1999, Amadou Diallo was stopped by plainclothes police. They said he fit the description of a rapist. He was shot 41 times and killed. Officers said he was reaching for a gun. He didn't have a gun. He was reaching for his wallet. All officers were later acquitted. Since then, there were numerous deaths involving plainclothes police - Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Saheed Vassell. In 2020, the unit was disbanded amidst widespread protests over police brutality. Kadiatou Diallo says bringing it back now is wrong.

DIALLO: The mayor - I want to call him on not just being a mayor, but to be a son, to be a son, to be a father, to understand.

GARSD: Mayor Adams has reminded people that when he was in the NYPD, he spoke out against brutality against people of color. And he's promised that this will be a different plainclothes unit. They will wear body cameras. They will focus on criminals. There will be consequences for police who overstep. Diallo doesn't buy it.

DIALLO: You cannot just change, rebrand and retrain people who have been doing something not good.

GARSD: He understands the grief of the parents who've lost children to the recent rise in shootings in the city. She just worries that New Yorkers, especially New Yorkers of color, are being asked to make a choice between who does the shooting. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.