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NYPD deploys Neighborhood Safety Teams to battle gun violence, replacing controversial plainclothes unit

<i>Terrence Jennings/Redux</i><br/>New York City Police Department Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell said the city's new Neighborhood Safety Teams have gone through extensive training.
Terrence Jennings/Redux
Terrence Jennings/Redux
New York City Police Department Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell said the city's new Neighborhood Safety Teams have gone through extensive training.

By Mark Morales, CNN

A controversial unit within the New York Police Department that was revived to battle rising gun violence in the city is finally hitting the streets on Monday, promising significant training, and even new uniforms, to prevent aggressive and abusive policing tactics that had plagued its predecessor.

The so-called Neighborhood Safety Teams, the latest version of plainclothes units designed to go after firearms, will be deployed to roughly 25 neighborhoods officials say represent 80% of the gun violence in the city. When the unit is fully built, the specialized officers will be in 30 neighborhoods and several public housing projects, city officials said. The unit replaces the anti-crime team disbanded in 2020.

While the new team steps off on Monday, the latest crime statistics show crime up in every major category, which includes murder, rape, robbery and others. As of the first week of March, major crimes were up 47% since the start of the year, compared to the same time last year.

And while the new neighborhood safety teams have been pegged as one of many long term solutions for crime, there continues to be a constant spate of high profile crimes.

“It’s important that he bring crime down. He has a very short window in which to do it before New Yorkers start to question whether or not he can do the job and start questioning his leadership,” said Basil Smikle, a longtime political strategist and lecturer at both Columbia University and Hunter College.

Training focused on minimal force, de-escalation

The new teams are designed to pick up where the anti-crime team left off. The issue has been addressing community concerns such as officers in plainclothes jumping out of unmarked cars, leading many in the community to argue they didn’t know they were dealing with police. In response, the NYPD has instituted more training, new uniforms and included community members as part of the process.

“These teams are there for gun violence,” NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said at a news conference on Friday. “They are there for criminal activity but they look like police officers. They are not in plain clothes. Their uniforms clearly have the NYPD on the back. They are there for the safety of the community and to get violent offenders off the street.”

Sewell said to make the new teams happen, they had to look at the mistakes of the past.

The new neighborhood safety teams are made up of a sergeant and five officers. All were put through a seven-day training period where they were tactically trained as a team. They also learned minimal force techniques, advanced tactics in car stop de-escalation, communication skills, courtroom testimony training and constitutional policing, said NYPD Chief of Department Kenneth Corey, who has overseen the new unit’s training.

“The training surrounding investigative encounters is the same material that has been reviewed and approved by the court appointed federal monitor, so we know we are fully compliant,” Corey said.

The teams were created after NYPD officials got recommendations from precinct commanders as to who should make up the new group. Once selected, each member went through the training period, with half their instruction happening at the police academy and the other half from the NYPD gun range, according to a law enforcement official. Part of their new training was how to gather intelligence and use the information to get guns off the street.

New neighborhood safety team members went over specialized training such as the critical decision-making model and even in-depth foot pursuit concepts, the official said.

A key component to the success of the group is oversight, with team members going over stops and arrests by reviewing body camera footage with their supervisors, the official said.

And while officers will be wearing their new gear such as half-sleeve shirts and vests with “NYPD” on either the chest or on logos, along with the department issued cargo pants and their full gun belt, they’ll still be in unmarked cars. Those vehicles, however, are expected to have dashboard cameras, the official said.

As part of the initial rollout, these teams will be meeting with community members and will be setting up a time to introduce themselves at community board meetings in the neighborhoods they are sent to, the official said.

Teams replace controversial unit disbanded in 2020

Previous versions of this type of team were met with allegations of police brutality and aggressive policing tactics. But Mayor Eric Adams, who has now made good on a campaign promise to bring back a revamped version of the beleaguered unit, said the group needed to meet the new standard he set for them.

Adams initially promised the units would be on the streets in three weeks since he first made the announcement in January. And while there was a delay in the timeline Mayor Adams gave, his reasoning was they were trying to get it right.

“I was not going to put out a unit that was going to go after those who are carrying illegal guns unless I felt comfortable and we were not going back to the days of being abusive,” Mayor Adams said at a news conference on Saturday, adding the units would follow a precision policing model and not criminalizing an entire neighborhood, a complaint he heard from residents.

City Councilman Justin Brannan, a member of the city council’s committee on public safety, said Adams and his team presented his plan for the re-imagined anti-crime unit to lawmakers over a Zoom call last month. And while some had issues with bringing back a team with a checkered past, Brannan said he was in support of the new unit.

“Public safety and police accountability do not need to live in constant tension,” Brannan said. “The average New Yorker wants to feel safe, wants to know that when they call 911, there’ll be a quick response. They want the police to be accountable and to act professionally. That’s a very basic sentiment that just about everybody can agree with. So with the rise in gun violence and the rising crime, this is a step in the right direction toward making people feel safe again.”

City Councilwoman Tiffany Caban challenged the rollout of the teams, saying the new uniforms aren’t enough and pointed to other parts of the mayor’s safety plan aimed at addressing social issues as a way to curtail the violence.

“We talk about how it’s going to be different. It’s not so much about clothes, it’s about culture,” Caban said, adding she wanted to see more investment in violence interrupters, the city’s crisis management systems, mental health care and even summer youth programs.

“We know that those things work, and we need to deeply invest in them rather than continuing to invest in these failed policing policies that decade over decade, have shown themselves not only to be ineffective but to have driven a lot of harm in our communities,” Caban said.

New units face challenge of rising crime

On Saturday, two workers at the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art were stabbed by an assailant. In February, a man on the subway in the Bronx rubbed feces in a woman’s face who rejected his unwanted advances. Also in February, an Asian woman was pushed into her Lower East Side home and killed while her neighbors heard her helpless screams.

And on Monday morning, authorities were searching for an unidentified assailant who shot homeless victims while they were sleeping in Washington DC and New York, killing one in each region.

“(Adams) election was largely due to his insistence that being the former police officer, he knew how to be able to tackle crime but also do it in a way that responded to community concerns about police brutality and the accountability,” Smikle said.

“The challenge for him is to bring back this very controversial unit and bring crime down in a way that also supports a good percentage of the electorate’s desire for rethinking and reframing what police officers actually do. And that’s going to be a very difficult challenge for him going forward. And as I said, he’s got a very short window.”

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