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The Return of Plain Clothes Policing in New York City

Protests following the killing of Amadou Diallo by four plain clothes police officers. (Photograph by Andrew Holbrooke)

Following a string of highly publicized shootings in New York City, newly elected Mayor Eric Adams released his “Blue Print to End Gun Violence” which included a plan to reinstate plain clothes police officers after the units were disbanded in June 2020. Following calls for police reform after the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent racial justice movements, plain clothes policing was examined and considered to be a "brute force" form of policing that would give way to modern advancements in technology and intelligence gathering.

Plain clothes police members have a tumultuous history in New York City with advocates crediting the units’ tactics and presence with high numbers of illegal guns seized and reductions in violent crime. However, plain clothes police units have also disproportionately targeted Black and Hispanic people and made up 31 percent of fatal police shootings despite comprising only 6 percent of the police force. Mayor Adams’ proposal insists on modifications to previous iterations of the anti-crime unit including improved training and police officers wearing body cameras and a windbreaker that identifies them as members of the NYPD. However, plain clothes police members will return to using unmarked cars.

Plain clothes police officers in New York City are the subjects of a great number of controversial killings of unarmed Black men including Eric Garner, Saheed Vassell, and Amadou Diallo. On February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Black man from Guinea was shot and killed by four police officers from the Street Crime Unit of the NYPD. The Street Crime Unit was considered an elite squad of plain clothes police officers whose aggressive tactics and high-profile controversies lead to a larger number of fire-arms related arrests compared to uniformed patrol officers.

Diallo was standing outside of his building in the early morning hours when four plain clothes officers in an unmarked vehicle stopped Diallo and interrogated him in pursuit of a serial rapist in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Diallo was ordered to show his hands, but reportedly headed towards his apartment entrance and reached into his pockets to show his wallet. Diallo was suspected to have a gun, and was shot 41 times by the police officers with at least 19 bullets hitting him and killing him. No weapon was found on or near Diallo. The four police officers involved were cleared following an internal review and were acquitted of all charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. In the early 2000s, the unit was accused of racial profiling by federal and New York state investigators stating members of the unit were much more likely to stop Blacks and Hispanics than whites leading to the Street Crime Unit disbanding and existing members joining other plain clothes units in the NYPD.

The history of plain clothes policing in New York City has documented frequent and dangerous interactions between the police and public. Despite this, Mayor Adams, who himself criticized the Street Crime Unit following the killing of Diallo, insists that this time will be different stating, “The abusive police tactics will not return under my administration.” The plain clothes police units are expected to begin their patrols in the coming weeks nearly 23 years after Diallo's death.

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