"The next mayor really must be someone who has gone through a lot, so they can help people who are going through a lot," Adams tells PEOPLE

By Sean Neumann
June 11, 2021 10:20 AM
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Eric Adams
Eric Adams
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Editor's note: This is one of a series of interviews with leading candidates in the New York City mayoral race. Click here to read more about Kathryn Garcia, Maya Wiley and Andrew Yang.

"My story," says Eric Adams, one of the leading candidates to be the next mayor of the country's largest city, "is a New York story."

Adams talks often about how that story began: what he survived growing up Black in Queens in the '60s and '70s and what it taught him - and why, now, the former state senator and current Brooklyn borough president is pitching himself to voters as a coalition leader with a platform spotlighting police reform and crime reduction.

"The next mayor really must be someone who has gone through a lot, so they can help people who are going through a lot," he tells PEOPLE.

Adams would be only the second Black mayor of New York, and his experiences with racism and government have inevitably shaped his life. (He is one of two leading Black candidates in the race, along with civil rights attorney Maya Wiley.)

Nearly four decades after Adams graduated from the police academy, he hopes his message will resonate at a time when inequality and policing have become national concerns.

"The moment is surreal when you think about it," he told PEOPLE after former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd.

"I believe it was a step forward towards justice," Adams says. "It really shows that our system works if we carry out the proper display of evidence."

The native of South Jamaica, Queens, says he knows that firsthand.

Eric Adams
Eric Adams
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He has been telling his origin story - such as it is - for years: how he was beaten by police as a 15-year-old, after he and his brother were arrested for criminal trespassing, and how he later reluctantly became an officer himself as part of a push to "change the culture"from the inside.

Adams, now 60, told NPR in 2016 that the arresting officer "kicked us in our groin repeatedly," leaving him peeing blood for nearly a week.

The beating also left him with unrecognized post-traumatic stress disorder. Later, though, he developed what he calls a passionate, decades-long drive to reform law enforcement.

"It was really a moment instead of saying 'woe is me,' I said, 'Why not me?' " he says.

Even so, he wasn't that quick to come around to the idea of joining the force.

Adams says that after Arthur Miller, a Black man, was killed in 1978 by police officers who used a chokehold, Rev. Herbert Daughtry and other leaders of an organization called The Black United Front "became frustrated that all of our activism was taking place outside the agency."

Eric Adams
Eric Adams
| Credit: Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

Daughtry's idea was to reform policing from the inside, and he approached Adams and 12 others to be the ones to do it.

"I was reluctant and really afraid of the thought," Adams says.

He was shadowed by his own experience at the hands of the police: He became emotional when he would hear sirens or see officers in a movie, thinking back to his violent interaction with someone who swore an oath to protect him and others. ("Every time I saw a police car, I would relive the beating.")

"But little did I know that the trauma I was feeling all the time vanished and dissipated because I was inside fighting the system and getting rid of the PTSD that I was experiencing," he says.

He graduated from the police academy in 1984 and remained an officer for 22 years, co-founding the 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care advocacy group.

He ultimately rose to the rank of captain before he retired and was elected to the New York state Senate in 2006. He became the Brooklyn borough president in 2013.

Adams has one of the lengthiest careers among the crowded field of candidates - which means plenty of supporters, plenty of critics and plenty of scrutiny including over how he spends his money and, even, where he really lives. (His time as an officer has its own naysayers.)

It's the theme of reform, he says now, that animates his life.

Eric Adams
Eric Adams
| Credit: David Dee Delgado/Getty

"Because I was so much involved in fighting for reform, I found my solace in doing that," he says. "It was really the beginning of my career in fighting to change the culture of policing."

"We need to be more proactive at preventing crimes instead of creating crime," he says.

Such changes would be one of the primary initiatives an Adams administration would undertake if he is elected, along with housing and education, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and global social justice movement touched off by Floyd's' murder.

As mayor, Adams says, he hopes to clean up policing by improving the department's relationship with the community and how it is run.

He suggests putting civilians in roles to perform clerical duties and says officers should be able to testify in court remotely in order to avoid the city paying overtime to officers "sitting inside a courtroom waiting to testify."

He says he also wants the city to focus on promoting early education and creating wider access to social services in an effort to address larger issues that foster crime later in life.

"We would become more proactive and not reactive," he says.

Recent polling suggests Adams, one of 13 people on this month's Democratic primary ballot, appears to be a front-runner in the race alongside Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate; Wiley; and Kathryn Garcia, a longtime city official.

Given N.Y.C.'s voting makeup, the winner of the Democratic primary will be the presumptive winner heading into the fall election to replace incumbent Bill de Blasio.

Adams knows he's up against a large list of candidates - a fact made more complicated by the city's new ranked-choice voting, in which being No. 2 among a lot of voters is still helpful - but he argues that New Yorkers will be drawn to his local upbringing and his "35 uninterrupted years" as an officer and politician as all the evidence they need to pick him.

"I think it's important now for New Yorkers to say we're not looking for a new friend when we have an old friend," Adams says. "People in this city, they know me and I know them."