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Colliding Crises Are Testing Mayor Eric Adams’s Law-and-Order Agenda

Mayor Eric Adams talks about growing up “on the edge of homelessness” frequently. “I carried a trash bag to school filled with my clothes because my mother was worried that we would be forced onto the streets without warning and wouldn’t have a change of clothing,” he said in a December speech. The anecdote, which he’s used both as a candidate and now as mayor, artfully communicates empathy for New York’s vulnerable, and a personal understanding of what too often can seem an abstract, intractable issue. Yet Adams has also been shaped, to an even greater extent, by the 22 years he spent working as a city cop. 

The tension between those two formative influences has been on acute display in this month, as Adams has grappled with two high-profile crises. On May 1, Jordan Neely, a homeless 30-year-old Black man, was choked to death by Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old white former Marine, as they rode the subway through Manhattan, a killing partially documented by an excruciating nearly four-minute-long video. Penny, who is facing a felony charge of second-degree manslaughter, told the New York Post over the weekend that he didn’t feel ashamed about what he did, and if in a similar scenario, he’d do the same thing; his lawyers have claimed Penny acted to defend himself and other passengers being threatened by Neely. The lawyer for Neely’s family has noted witness accounts that Neely did not physically attack anyone before he was killed. The incident hasn’t just inflamed the local debate over public safety—it has become the latest highly-politicized flashpoint in the national conflict over excessive force being used against Black Americans, widespread homelessness, and the gaping holes in the nation’s mental health system. 

After Neely’s death, the mayor expressed sympathy for the victim, but he has not explicitly condemned Penny, and he has been slow to caution citizens about taking matters into their own hands. “The circumstances surrounding his death are still being investigated, and while we have no control over that process, one thing we can control is how our city responds to this tragedy,” Adams said in a 14-minute speech delivered nine days after the subway killing, and two days before Penny was arrested. “One thing we can say for sure, Jordan Neely did not deserve to die, and all of us must work together to do more for our brothers and sisters struggling with serious mental illness.” 

The second, slower-moving calamity is the arrival of thousands of migrants to the city, some of whom have been sent as a political stunt by Texas governor Greg Abbott. Many of them are landing either in the streets or in New York’s shelter system—which is bursting with about 80,000 people, a population larger than that of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware. The mayor’s reaction has often combined punishment and pique. Early last year, Adams announced a push to clear homeless encampments from the city’s streets and subways; last fall, he announced that authorities, including police, would hospitalize—involuntarily, if necessary—people deemed to be too sick to care for themselves. The latter policy had, for all practical purposes, already been in effect, and measuring the impact of the two decrees is difficult. “The mayor claimed at one point that 1,300 people had been approached and brought in and stabilized. But we and members of the press have asked for the data to back that up,” says Dave Giffen, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. “Do you see fewer people sleeping on the subways? I don’t.”

The arrival of 67,000 asylum seekers in the past year has greatly increased the strain, and Adams has reacted with anger and exasperation—some of which is on target. The city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the fallout from a border crisis whose causes are thousands of miles away, and whose resolution is mired in Washington politics. Adams’s budget frustration is justifiable, though his outbursts may prove politically counterproductive. Declaring that “the city is being destroyed by the migrant crisis” and that “the president and the White House have failed this city” handed Republicans a juicy sound bite, and got Adams dropped as a surrogate for Joe Biden’s reelection bid. The mayor’s rhetoric risks a repeat of last fall, when Adams’s hyping of the city’s crime problems was used by Republicans in fear-mongering midterm attacks that helped swing enough New York House seats to keep Democrats from gaining a majority. 

“It’s disappointing that the mayor from a city that defines our history as a nation of immigrants is approaching this with such negativity,” says Angela Kelley, a former senior official in Biden’s Department of Homeland Security and now an adviser to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “I don’t think that, in this case, the squeaky wheel is the one that’s going to get the oil. And it’s Congress that holds the purse strings, so his ire should go to that end of Pennsylvania Avenue.” Adams has been more conciliatory toward New York’s delegation on Capitol Hill, headed by Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, as he presses for a larger share of FEMA money to be sent to the city. “You know how he operates—he’s looking to spread the blame,” a New York Democratic congressional insider says. “The city applied for all $350 million of the FEMA money because that’s where their need is right now, and probably larger than that. They got $30.5 million of it. We recognize it’s just the first step and that we need to keep on working with them to get more.”

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