Zach Tahhan is the image of community care the police can never be

Amid reports of the NYPD’s broken radios and ineffective lurking, a regular New Yorker emerged as the picture of safety.

Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

“When the mayor has swagger, the city has swagger.”

So proclaimed Eric Adams on his third day as mayor of New York City, a position he won in large part thanks to his history working within — and vow to increase support for — the NYPD. But just three and a half months into his tenure as the latest Hizzoner, Adams’s swagger and that of his emboldened police force have shown themselves entirely incapable of handling what is ostensibly their primary function: keeping the residents of New York City safe.

Just three days after his declaration of swagger, Adams announced plans to beef up the police presence in the city’s extensive subway system, explaining that “people feel the system is not safe because they don’t see officers. We’re going to bring a visual presence to our systems.” Instead, the cumulative result of adding a thousand new officers into the subways seems to have been a draconian crackdown on turnstile hoppers, food vendors, and the already vulnerable. And despite its budget of more than $10 billion per year — higher than some European nations’ entire annual military spending — and the full-throated support of a mayor eager to bring back the failed “broken windows” policing style of his predecessors, the NYPD was caught wholly off guard by the domestic terrorist attack at a Brooklyn train station this week. Indeed, the NYPD’s conduct in the wake of Tuesday’s attack has been so rife with glaring blunders and profound institutional failings that it’s hard to believe that the most powerful, empowered, expensive city law enforcement institution in the country is competent enough to perform even its most basic duties.

Consider the subway shooting suspect: 62-year-old Frank James, a man with lengthy arrest history, including having been charged with two counts of issuing terroristic threats in the 1990s. James made little secret of his expansive, hateful conspiracy theories, broadcasting them regularly in a series of disturbing YouTube videos — including one allegedly criticizing Adams for his subway policing policies. And even if you ascribe to the eminently reasonable opinion that police exist primarily to enforce a status quo by responding to crimes, rather than preventing them, the NYPD failed spectacularly on that count too: Among their many, many screw-ups are claims that the initial officer on the scene in Brooklyn had difficulty using his radio, instead encouraging victims to simply call 911, coupled with the reports that the closest police precinct did not stopping all train traffic after the shooting, allowing the perpetrator to flee, and that the MTA security cameras at the relevant stations were inoperable.

In fact, the only reason police were able to attach a face and name to the attack was because James evidently left his keys and credit card at the scene. Even more incredibly, James’s “capture,” such as it was, was largely the result of him calling the police to tell them where he was, before wandering one of the busiest neighborhoods in the Manhattan until cops actually arrived. Despite Adams’s pledge to double the police presence in the subway system after the attack, the surge seems only to mean that there are now twice as many officers to stand around, looking unbothered. Ironically, there were NYPD officers just a few blocks from where James made his call to turn himself in — they were just busy clearing out an unhoused people’s encampment.

It’s little wonder, then, that New Yorkers and the public at large were so eager to embrace Zach Tahhan as the hero of the day. Tahhan, a security camera technician, is credited with identifying James and alerting local police to his presence as the suspect wandered Manhattan’s East Village on Wednesday.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the guy, we need to get him.’” Tahhan told a crowd of press and admirers after James’s arrest. “He was walking down the street, I see the car of the police, I said, ‘Yo, this is the guy’!”

And while it’s unclear whether Tahhan’s identification of James came before or after James called the police on himself, Tahhan has still become a poster child for the feeling that it was the work of ordinary New Yorkers, and not the police, which ultimately resulted in the alleged gunman’s capture. When New York Police Commissioner Keechant Sewel lauded “the work of our detectives [as] second to none” and said the “dedication of our patrol officers is never ending” following James’s arrest, his Twitter account was bombarded by replies crediting Tahhan and other regular New Yorkers as the real reason James was in custody. Adams’s declaration that “we got him” met a similar deluge of replies citing Tahhan as the real hero.

In this, James’s alleged act of domestic terrorism has highlighted a discrepancy between how police and their backers see the role of law enforcement, and the growing sense among many that real action comes from within communities and not from authority imposed from above. Whether or not Tahhan is directly and solely responsible for James’s arrest, he has become emblematic of a real hunger for community self-care, in which it’s the local institutions and their familiar faces who take care of their own. It’s a compelling narrative — particularly in a city where the police have been given wide latitude to protect the powers that be at the expense of the needs of the people.

In the end, for the time being at least, it’s likely Adams and his law enforcement cronies will successfully parlay James’s arrest as a major win for the NYPD and policing in general. He will likely use the arrest as justification for further police actions and expansions, all under the guise of public safety. But beyond that narrative is another, more compelling one: that it’s communities who take care of their members, even when — especially when — the police themselves cannot.