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What the alleged attack on Giuliani reveals about his policing legacy

This is not a case of a clownish person abusing a legitimate system. The system is Giuliani.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks to reporters during a joint campaign appearance with his son in Manhattan, June 7, 2022. (Jeenah Moon/The New York)
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks to reporters during a joint campaign appearance with his son in New York on June 7. Jeenah Moon / The New York Times / Redux

Disbarred former Trump attorney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made headlines this week after accusing a grocery store worker of assaulting him. Subsequently released surveillance video indicated Giuliani had exaggerated significantly — and current Mayor Eric Adams called him on it, noting that making a false police report is a crime

But as a legal expert correcting misinformation on New York’s criminal legal policy and as a civil rights attorney who spent years as a public defender, I know well that little separates Adams from the former mayor he was so quick to criticize. Giuliani’s policies have transcended political parties, surviving three decades of governance since his time as mayor. To leave Giuliani behind, we need to rebuke more than just the man himself.

In Staten Island on Sunday, the worker, Daniel Gill, 39, tapped Giuliani on the back as the former mayor campaigned for his son’s failed gubernatorial bid. According to his attorney, Gill sought Giuliani’s attention. “All of the sudden, I feel a shot on my back, like somebody shot me,” Giuliani claimed. “It hurt tremendously.” 

Gill was arrested on a charge of second-degree assault — a D-violent felony carrying a two-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. But surveillance footage told a very different story. The charges have been reduced to misdemeanors, though they remain pending. 

In response to the chain of events, Adams lamented, “What if we didn’t have the video? This person would have been accused with a serious crime when all he did was pat the guy on the back.” He continued: “You know, you can’t do sensationalism to carry out your own agenda. And you can’t use the police to carry out your own agenda.” The former mayor responded: “Go f--- yourself.”

While the two have traded barbs before, the critiques here seem borne of performative politics. Adams’ allegation of sensationalism, however apt, comes from a mayor who has engaged in agenda-driven sensationalism himself. Still, the answer to Adams’ “What if?” lies in far-from-hypothetical outcomes for countless New Yorkers arrested by New York Police Department officers before any investigation has occurred, as happened to Gill, and to constituents — including teenagers — who Adams himself has vilified to advance his agenda before they were ultimately vindicated.

Indeed, it was Adams’ NYPD that elected to arrest Gill against available evidence. Because the arrest charge is statutorily classified as “violent,” Gill would have been eligible for pre-trial jailing on Rikers Island, where New Yorkers continue to suffer and die in nightmarish conditions with shocking regularity. Though Gill is free for now, the case remains pending and is forever part of a very public media record. The outcome so far, however, has actually been better than the cases of many other New Yorkers accused of crimes; thanks to a stroke of luck, video exists to show what really happened. But this case is an exception, not a rule.

As mayor, Giuliani was widely recognized as a vengeful and pugnacious man who fought openly and bitterly with people deemed political enemies, like school teachers. He punched down on politically excluded groups and identified people such as street vendors — also a repeated target of Adams’ and his police — and jaywalkers for vitriolic attacks. In the decades since his dubious post-9/11 rise as “America’s Mayor,” Giuliani has gone from national figurehead to national laughingstock

Adams’ allegation of sensationalism, however apt, comes from a mayor who has engaged in agenda-driven sensationalism himself.

But we live in the world that Giuliani helped build, where policymakers on both sides of the aisle ratchet the levers of crime and punishment rightward. This isn’t just limited to New York City. So-called progressive mayors in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago right now continue to cater to fear-based politics, calling for the criminalization of people who are struggling, amplifying police propaganda that would result in locking more people up pretrial, and even claiming that everyone charged with certain crimes should be presumed guilty. 

In the end, this is not a case of a clownish person abusing a legitimate system. The system is Giuliani, a man who spent years as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York after working in the Department of Justice. 

Beyond surface-level criticisms of Giuliani’s policies and statements, Adams has largely perpetuated, and even praised, the policies Giuliani enacted during his tenure. Both opposed efforts at police accountability during mayoral administrations 30 years apart. Rather than acknowledging that the safest communities have the most resources, not the highest arrest or incarceration rates, both defunded resources like public education while pushing behemoth police budgets. Giuliani advanced stop-and-frisk and “broken windows” policing, practices that still persist despite public outcry, proven inefficacy and court findings of unconstitutionality. Adams and police leadership continue to utilize and defend some of these policies, even as they deny that they are engaging in “broken windows” policing.

Moreover, Giuliani has repeatedly attacked New York’s modest bail reform laws, which simply allow poor people, in limited circumstances, to remain free until and unless they are found guilty of a crime — just as the wealthy and powerful have always done. Although data has consistently shown no decrease in public safety due to bail reform, Adams continues to scapegoat the law, exploiting legitimate safety concerns and distracting from true solutions to violence. 

Giuliani defended the NYPD’s shootings of his constituents, including teenagers, and blindly advanced police versions of events even when contradicted by direct evidence. This also seems to be the default position of the Adams administration. Giuliani repeatedly endorsed the violent and racist tactics of the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit, whose members were known to abuse and kill New Yorkers well before they shot an unarmed Amadou Diallo 41 times. Adams has proudly resurrected the unit under a new, Orwellian name: Neighborhood Safety Teams. 

Although Giuliani may appear at times as a caricature of his former self, neither he nor the systems he helped build have changed much despite mass uprisings against racist police violence and the subsequent shift in political consciousness. Many supposed opponents continue to support and replicate many of his policies, and our bipartisan-endorsed system of punishment still reflects Giuliani’s legacy: racist, capricious, abusive, reactionary and dishonest. 

Criticizing Giuliani’s unproven allegations in a single case may be politically expedient, but it is meaningless unless backed by action to dismantle the policies he put in place. There may be a new mayor in Gracie Mansion, but Giuliani’s ideas still run New York.