This story is part of a joint reporting project from WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY.
On a spring afternoon in 2015, three NYPD officers were on patrol in Bedford-Stuyvesant, when they noticed a red Chevy Impala with dark tinted windows.
Officers Vaughan Ettienne, Ryan Galvin, and Mark Xylas, part of their precinct’s plainclothes Anti-Crime team, pulled the car over. Police said they smelled the odor of marijuana. When the driver couldn’t provide the proper paperwork, the cops said, they ordered the driver out of the car.
That’s when they noticed a large straight-edge knife resting on the floorboard, according to the NYPD. The officers cuffed the suspect and took him to the station. The knife was just the beginning: Inside the car, police said they later found a long, black machine gun with two high-capacity magazines, one of which was loaded.
A machine gun was off the street because of a simple car stop. This was the kind of arrest the Anti-Crime unit was all about.
For years, the NYPD empowered these squads to shed their uniforms for jeans and hoodies and prowl around high-crime areas in unmarked cars. Their mission was simple: to identify and stop people who might be carrying illegal guns before street rivalries turned deadly.
But the Anti-Crime units’ aggressive mentality seeded resentment. Frequent car stops and daily frisks in Black and Latino neighborhoods bred anger over a perceived disregard for residents’ constitutional rights. Because of the combative nature of their assignments, Anti-Crime and other plainclothes officers generated numerous civilian complaints and were at the center of a disproportionate number of fatal police shootings.
Last June, after weeks of protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea abruptly announced the dissolution of Anti-Crime. It was time, he said, for the NYPD to “move away from brute force.”
But the announcement came at a time when many poor Black and Latino neighborhoods were suffering a surge in gun violence. The trend has stretched into this year — though violent crime remains dramatically lower than it was a generation ago.
Now, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain who has made public safety a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign, is pledging to bring back a reformed version of Anti-Crime — a stance that no other top-tier Democratic candidate has taken with the June 22 primary approaching.
“We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Having a good Anti-Crime team will continue to take guns off the streets,” Adams said in an interview with WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY. “We can do it right, we’ll get it right, and we’ll make sure our city is safe.”
‘Fortune Favoring the Bold’
Criminologists have found that the reductions in gun crime associated with this kind of crackdown strategy are modest and not necessarily long-term. But political observers say the campaign pledge from Adams makes sense as a way to stand out in a crowded field of candidates, at a time of heightened anxiety over shootings.
Most Democrats running for mayor say they’re against bringing back the plainclothes units, a view in line with the defund-the-police movement that emerged from last year’s protests.
Candidates Scott Stringer, Dianne Morales, Ray McGuire, Kathryn Garcia and Shaun Donovan each told WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY that they do not support bringing back the units, while Andrew Yang said he would consider the move, if elected.
Maya Wiley, also in the running, did not respond to requests for comment.
Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, said the stance could distinguish Adams with law enforcement families, conservative white voters, and middle and working-class Black and Latino residents who believe the plainclothes officers tamped down on shootings in their communities.
“We know that there’s a lot of nuance in how people feel about policing, how they feel about guns,” said Greer. “So if he can provide the space for a nuanced conversation to explain his platform, then he might be in for some sort of fortune favoring the bold.”
A Long, Controversial History
The NYPD’s reliance on plainclothes police squads like Anti-Crime goes back several decades. Before Anti-Crime was in the headlines, another team, known as the “Street Crime Unit,” proved instrumental in seizing a large number of guns in the city and earned accolades as violent crime dropped.
But the units were controversial. In 1999, four plainclothes Street Crime Unit officers fatally shot Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old West African immigrant, outside his South Bronx home. Facing intense criticism, in 2002, the NYPD “disbanded” the units and shifted many of those officers to another plainclothes squad already in place in some boroughs: Anti-Crime.
The name changed, but the mission remained largely the same: to rid the streets of illegal firearms.
Through the years, the plainclothes units continued to be at the center of high-profile killings. In 2014, Anti-Crime officer Daniel Pantaleo fatally choked Eric Garner on Staten Island as he gasped his final words “I can’t breathe.” In 2018, three of the four officers who fatally shot Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights were part of the Anti-Crime unit.
In between those headline-grabbing moments, New Yorkers complained about more everyday abuses on the street.
Following the repeal of a state law which shielded police misconduct records, WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY obtained more than 40 of the complaints filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) involving misconduct allegations against Anti-Crime and other plainclothes officers. Spanning two decades, all of these complaints included allegations that were substantiated by the board, meaning that the CCRB found credible evidence of misconduct.
In most of them, the CCRB determined that officers abused their authority through improper stops, frisks, searches, and other actions.
Such invasive encounters were an inevitable consequence of the incentives the NYPD gave Anti-Crime teams, argues Edwin Raymond, an NYPD lieutenant who is running for City Council in Brooklyn’s 40th District and has supervised Anti-Crime officers. Unit members learned that productivity was the key to getting promoted to the rank of detective, Raymond said, even if it came through racial profiling, baseless stops and over-aggressive behavior.
“Once the carrot becomes how many gun arrests you can get, the Constitution is going to be violated in order to get those weapons,” he said, noting that he was speaking in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the department.
“‘Yeah, okay, it might not be completely legit, but we’re saving lives with this’” is how he described the Anti-Crime attitude. “That’s the rationalization that allows them to continue.”
Asked for comment about Raymond’s observation, an NYPD spokesperson said: “NYPD Anti-Crime and now Public Safety Units operate with Body-Worn-Cameras. These cameras, used in the course of gun or drug arrests, are meant to improve transparency, provide compelling video evidence and reduce false complaints or verify those that may have merit.”
Serious Arrests, Serious Concerns
Ettienne, Galvin, and Xylas — the three officers who took the machine gun off the street in Bed-Stuy — all have had decorated careers with the NYPD. Collectively, they have made more than 500 felony arrests and received numerous commendations for “Excellent Police Duty.” Today, Ettienne and Galvin serve as detectives, and Xylas as a sergeant.
But throughout their highly productive careers, the officers have also been accused of going overboard in the pursuit of arrests. They have been named in civilian complaints and lawsuits alleging excessive force and unjustified stops, frisks and searches. And judges and prosecutors have raised concerns about their credibility.
The 2009 arrest of Gary Waters was supposed to be an open-and-shut case. Ettiennne had helped arrest the man, a parolee with a prior burglary conviction, for allegedly possessing a loaded firearm. But at trial, the man fought his case, accusing Ettienne and another officer of breaking his ribs and then planting the gun on him to justify the assault. In the end, the jury convicted Waters only of resisting arrest, a misdemeanor charge, in part because of the officer’s overly macho social media posts.
Jurors learned that a few weeks before the proceedings, he updated his status on Facebook to: “Vaughan is watching ‘Training Day’ to brush up on proper police procedure.” The 2001 film, starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, is about a corrupt veteran officer showing the ropes to a rookie cop on the streets of Los Angeles.
Ettiennne also posted a comment on a social media video of an arrest, which the defense used to its advantage. The post seemed to encourage police brutality while using a homophobic slur.
“If he wanted to tune him up some, he should have delayed cuffing him…. If you were going to hit a cuffed suspect, at least get your money’s worth ’cause now he’s going to get disciplined for a f—ass love tap,” Ettiennne wrote online.
In 2016, Ettienne had more issues in court, this time along with Galvin and Xylas.
A year after the three Anti-Crime officers arrested the man with a machine gun in his car in Bed-Stuy, a judge suppressed the evidence of the illegal firearm.
All three officers had testified that they smelled the odor of marijuana upon approaching the man’s car, a claim that prosecutors said gave them the right to search the vehicle. But Brooklyn state Supreme Court Judge John G. Ingram did not believe the police.
The officers did not find marijuana in the car, and Xylas never mentioned smelling marijuana when he initially testified about the case before a grand jury, the judge noted.
Moreover, Ingram pointed out in a written decision, the driver said he was stopped by police on his way to a drug rehab program where he was tested three times a week for marijuana use. “It strains the bounds of credulity to imagine [the] Defendant smoking marijuana on his way to a drug program where he knows he will be tested for drugs,” the judge wrote.
Dismissing the officers’ testimony, Ingram declared the search to be unlawful. The man beat his machine gun charge and was released from jail. He is now suing the city for “false arrest,” according to state court documents.
Galvin and Xylas have since been named in internal lists compiled by Brooklyn and Queens prosecutors tracking officers whom judges have flagged for credibility issues. The two officers did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The three Anti-Crime officers’ alleged credibility issues were hardly isolated. Before the disbandment of the plainclothes units, judges repeatedly accused Anti-Crime officers of stretching the truth on the stand to bolster the legality of stops and searches that led to gun and drug arrests, according to internal lists of court findings tracked by prosecutors across the city.
Back To The Future?
Eric Adams says his version of Anti-Crime would rebuild the concept from scratch to preempt community fears of plainclothes teams jumping out of cars and searching Black and Latino men whenever they feel like it. “The Anti-Crime model we witnessed previously was a model where you just searched as many people as possible. You arrest a lot of innocent New Yorkers just to try to find that gun in the haystack,” he said.
Adams says the new squads would not rely on officers who came up in the old Anti-Crime culture. Instead, the NYPD would deploy fresh officers trained in conflict resolution and building community relationships. This changed approach, Adams said, would generate more ground-level intelligence helping police “pinpoint those who are carrying firearms.”
In a statement, the NYPD pointed out that it has already sought to strike a balance between going after guns and upholding civil liberties. After the disbandment of Anti-Crime, the department noted that many plainclothes officers put on uniforms, but they continued to use unmarked cars and carry out proactive enforcement.
“They have been a big part of the record increase of gun seizures, the largest number of gun arrests since 1995,” Sergeant Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, said in a statement, referring to the NYPD’s gun arrest tallies so far this year. “The adjustment into uniform has seemed to have no negative impact on their mission.”
At the same time, the NYPD said these uniformed officers now wear Body-Worn-Cameras in an effort “to improve transparency,” said McRorie.
Despite the department’s ongoing gun crackdown, Adams’ call for the return of plainclothes Anti-Crime officers might appeal to a cross-section of New York voters.
Last Thursday, Adams held a campaign rally outside a Park Slope bodega, where a 52-year-old mother of two had been fatally shot by another woman a day earlier.
John Williams, president of Flatbush’s New Creation Community Health Ministry, which is affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist’s network of churches, attended the event. Williams, a founding member of the anti-violence group 67th Precinct Clergy Council, said he strongly supports reinstating a reformed version of the units.
“His plan to bring it back — but to eliminate, get rid of those things, all the negative aspect of policing in terms of that particular squad — is vitally important,” Williams told Gothamist/WNYC and THE CITY.
Elena Lamprecht, who lives above the bodega where the shooting occurred, observed the Adams campaign rally with her infant daughter. She said she was on a virtual call in her daughter’s nursery when the shooting happened. She heard the sirens and later saw the crime tape from her window, and eventually learned what happened via the Citizen app, she said.
“There’s stuff that happens here all the time, all the time,” said Lamprecht, 35. “I mean, especially here on Fourth Avenue, especially in Boerum Hill. I mean, this was like right outside my daughter’s window.”
‘Not a Great Idea’
Still, inflated fears of crime could be politically expedient, helping Adams expand his base with affluent, white voters, notes Greer, the Fordham political science professor.
“Obviously, you have white voters who always think about crime, crime, crime, even when there is no crime,” she said. “But now you have a new swath of white voters who are thinking about crime, and that’s middle class and upper class voters who, you know, because of COVID and the economics of things, feel like the city is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to crime.”
While the tough-on-crime initiative might be advantageous on the campaign trail, community advocate Iesha Sekou says she has witnessed plainclothes officers abusing their authority too many times to be comfortable with Adams’ Anti-Crime proposal.
“I remember seeing them jump out on a kid — and this was a kid — and he was screaming to get off of him. And they banged his head on the ground,” said Sekou, founder and CEO of Street Corner Resources, a Harlem-based nonprofit working to eradicate gun and gang violence across the city.
“Eric has some great ideas about policing, but I think that one is not a great idea,” she said speaking of Adams’ Anti-Crime proposal. Instead, Sekou asserts, the city should invest more in community-led violence interruption and employment initiatives, which have also proven to be effective in curtailing violent crime.
Adams Cites Safety
Sekou’s group has hosted educational workshops and open-mic sessions and provided venues where young people can become involved in music production. They have also deployed a team of street-wise “credible messengers,” tasked with reaching at-risk community members to try to prevent violent acts from happening.
Sekou added that over the years she’s found the most reliable engagement strategy to be helping people find and keep jobs. When people are given a job, a place to go and a paycheck for doing their job, they stay out of trouble, she said.
“With full engagement, you have full access to people in the community that can help to prevent violence, so that you have layers of voices on many levels, people who can intervene, because they know the person who is angry,” Sekou said. “We have people who are on the ground that will let us know that we need to attend to a situation before it gets bigger.”
Adams agrees that non-policing alternatives, like Sekou’s grassroots model, can help reduce community tensions and the cycles of street violence in the long run.
“But we do need an Anti-Crime unit that can deal with the immediate threat that many New Yorkers are facing, particularly around gun violence,” he said. “The threat of gun violence is really destroying the foundation of belief that people are safe in this city.”