Kasim Reed wasn’t planning on running for another term as mayor of Atlanta. But rising crime and the problems that have come with it — like one of Atlanta’s wealthiest districts trying to secede from the city — pushed him out of mayoral retirement and into an already crowded race.
Homicides and shootings are up and the number of cops is down in cities from Atlanta to Seattle. Crime, as a result, is dominating the discourse in mayoral races — driving candidates to talk about beefing up police patrols and bolstering depleted departments’ ranks.
“When I talk to people, they’re scared,” said Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, who’s running against Reed for mayor. “We have seen and experienced on a daily basis crime that we just haven’t seen before. People know that something has to happen — and they know the first responders to a crime situation are police officers.”
It’s a far cry from the calls to “defund the police” that took center stage in these cities just last summer. But the sobering reality of rising gun violence and flagrant theft is changing the conversation, pushing candidates to get tougher on crime in Democratic-leaning cities.
Eric Adams seemingly mastered this new, delicate balance in New York City, where the long-ascendant progressive call to cut police funding and end the “carceral state” landed with a dull thud this spring amid a surge of shootings and hate crimes.
Poll after poll showed crime as the top concern on the minds of Democratic voters, and that was the message Adams — who retired as a captain in the NYPD before entering politics — hammered home almost exclusively from the start of his campaign. Adams balanced that by promising reforms to abusive policing, surging late in the game to clinch the Democratic nomination over another pro-police candidate and progressive rivals who favored shifting funds away from the cops.
Yet Adams’ victory is less a model to be replicated than an example of a shift that’s been taking place on the ground for months as candidates already being pushed to tackle police reform are simultaneously being forced to confront crime head-on.
There’s been a wholesale shift on policing in Seattle, where just last summer cries to defund the police were so forceful that the majority of the City Council supported a plan to slash the police department’s budget by 50 percent. One year later, with homicides and gun violence on the rise and a “staffing crisis” spurred by a record number of officer departures, almost none of the major candidates running to replace outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan is outright backing defunding.
City Council President M. Lorena González, a top contender for mayor, supported those calls last year but has since distanced herself from them. In forums, she now talks of fully funding the department’s staffing and hiring plan while also investing millions in community-based “harm reduction systems.” González, who said she’s lost family members to gun violence, is also calling for “common-sense local regulations of guns.”
The top-polling candidate heading into the August primary election, former Seattle City Council president Bruce Harrell, has struck a balance between a “strong public safety presence” and promises to “change the culture of the police department.” Now, after a weekend of violent shootings that left four people dead and seven injured, Harrell, who had already pledged to create a cabinet-level position to coordinate the city’s response to gun violence, is calling for more officers.
“You don’t hear as much talk about it — even around the country — about defunding the police,” said Lance Randall, another candidate running in the sprawling field. “You hear people talking about accountability, dealing with certain officers. But the term ‘defund the police,’ I’m not hearing a lot of it anymore. Candidates have backed off of it.”
Randall, who is Black, was pitching himself as a strong advocate for public safety even before he said he was almost shot in June when a couple of men — trying to steal a catalytic converter from a car parked by his neighbor’s house — fired at the vehicle he was hiding behind.
“A lot of people realize now that even though we brought to a head this issue with unarmed Black people, people of color getting killed, we also understand we still have to have police protection,” Randall said. “Let’s not make our Black communities unsafe with this approach of taking money from the police department and putting it in our communities, and the police won’t respond.”
Some key crimes are up in cities across the country over the past year. Homicides, shootings and automobile thefts started rising last summer and “never kind of went down,” said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in crime analysis.
“A lot of it is pandemic related — it’s unemployment meets financial crisis or food shortages, housing inequality, health care issues,” Herrmann said. “And all that leads to all these mental health stressors, increased conflict with people.”
While those types of crimes are just a slight percentage of total crime, which is “actually normal or down,” Herrmann said, the “significant increases” in homicides and shootings are a problem “nationwide.”
In Atlanta, Moore made combating “out-of-control” crime from gun violence to rapes a centerpiece of her platform when she stepped up to challenge Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms back in January.
Lance Bottoms, who has been a rising figure in Democratic politics, announced in May she wouldn’t seek reelection. But Moore is still positioning herself as someone who’s tough on crime but also prepared to tackle its root causes through a combination of growing the department’s ranks and bolstering social services and affordable housing.
“You can’t just let crime spiral out of control while you’re waiting for your approaches to work in supporting programs and activities to help people,” Moore said. “You’ve got to do both at the same time.”
Reed, who previously served two terms as mayor, barnstormed into the race last month with a similar message and even more name recognition than Moore, catapulting himself to the front of the field despite the cloud of federal investigations from his two-term tenure as mayor. He and Moore — both Democrats and both Black — are now trading positions for first and second in opinion polls.
Crime is different now than when Reed was in office from 2010 to 2018. At least he thinks so. These days it’s “full shootouts in broad daylight” and car thefts. But the “smart-on-crime” tactics he’s pushing are similar to the ones he used when crime rates fell under his previous watch.
“I’m going to build a bigger police force. I’m going to spend more money than we have ever spent on training,” Reed said, while acknowledging it will take “balance” to get right. “It’s not as much tough talk as it is an array of solutions that, while it may not sound as sexy as ‘defund the police,’ it is a global approach that really does touch on multiple aspects of crime.”
In Atlanta and across other cities facing the same dynamics, there are also prominent mayoral candidates who say more cops aren’t the answer, and that the only way to successfully root out the scourge of violence is to dig into what’s causing it in the first place.
“What you see happening in Atlanta is the effect of generational poverty that has gone unaddressed,” said City Councilmember Antonio Brown, another Democratic mayoral hopeful. “You’ve got to create opportunities for these folks.”
Brown said his car was stolen in broad daylight last month by a group of kids. He’s drawing on the incident to bolster his calls for more community policing and more investments in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
“If folks think militarizing Atlanta is the solution, they are so far disconnected from the reality of what is really happening,” Brown said.
In Minneapolis, challengers Sheila Nezhad and Kate Knuth both believe they can take down incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey in part by supporting a plan that would dismantle the city’s police department — which is under federal investigation over possible patterns of excessive force that far predate the murder of George Floyd — and replace it with a Department of Public Safety.
That department would combine the city’s violence prevention and emergency response functions under one roof and “allow us to dramatically reduce — and maybe sometime in the future — no longer need law enforcement officers as part of the department,” Nezhad said. She wants the city to develop alternatives like “global mental health responders” and to invest in violence prevention.
More than 200 officers have already left the Minneapolis Police Department in the year since one of their own killed Floyd. But Frey — who, like Nezhad and Knuth, is a Democrat — sees that as a negative that could hamper the city’s ability to respond to 911 calls, shootings and domestic violence incidents.
Frey is holding fast to what he calls a “both-and approach” to public safety. That means “deep structural changes” to the department — like overhauling its use of force policy and sending more mental health responders and social workers on calls — while still keeping up the number of cops.
“Based on what we’re experiencing, the notion of dismantling or abolishing or further getting rid of police officers when we’re already at one of the lowest per capita numbers of any city in the country is not smart,” Frey said.
Boston hasn’t seen the same upswing in violent crime as other big cities this year. But the city hasn’t been immune to shootings this summer, pushing the five major candidates to juggle public safety concerns along with calls to reform a police department that’s been plagued by scandals from overtime fraud to a top cop who was recently ousted after decades-old domestic abuse allegations surfaced.
Andrea Campbell, the Boston City Council’s public safety chair, called for “restructuring our department to ensure every neighborhood has adequate officers to be able to respond to incidents of crime.”
But Campbell, the mayoral candidate pushing most strongly for policing reform, also said “just as important, because officers alone will never be able to eradicate incidents of violence in our communities, is to invest in the root causes of what causes violence, and that is moving people out of poverty, that is addressing trauma, that is increasing mental health services.”
Campbell said the Boston Police Department has enough officers to carry out its public safety charge. But Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who’s running for a full term, recently secured funding for 30 new officers in the police department’s budget to help cut down on soaring overtime costs. And two of their rivals are calling for hundreds more officers to accomplish the same and help boost community policing.
“The population of Boston has increased dramatically over the last decade, while our police force has actually gotten smaller. This has led to the department suffering from insufficient resources and lack of officers, creating longer response times and a decrease of coverage in our neighborhoods,” said City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, one of two candidates calling for more cops — and the one considered most pro-public safety. “It’s important that we both make reforms and ensure that our neighborhoods are safe. These are not mutually exclusive and Boston must do both.”
Boston may be somewhat of an outlier among the nation’s major cities, but the mayoral candidates’ messages mirror those emanating from New York, Seattle and Atlanta, and from Minneapolis’s Frey.
Days after Floyd’s murder, Frey was booed out of a rally for rejecting similar calls from demonstrators to abolish the city’s police department. Jeers of “shame” and “go home, Jacob, go home” followed him as he wound through the throngs of demonstrators on his self-described “walk of shame.”
“If I was concerned about national narratives, I probably would have changed my position,” Frey said.
Watching his views on policing gain more steam amid a nationwide surge in gun violence doesn’t necessarily bring Frey satisfaction.
“The need for accountability needs to be steadfast,” Frey said.
But the notion of having to pick between policing reform and combating crime is a “false choice,” he added. “We’ve got to stop violently swinging between these two extremes.”
David Giambusso contributed to this report.