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Police reform push collides with voters' fears over surging violent crime

One of the top candidates for mayor of New York is a former police captain who has said addressing the city's surging violent crime rate will be his highest priority. 

In New Mexico, a Democrat running for Congress in a left-of-center suburban district has been put on the defensive for supporting a measure to cut spending on law enforcement.

And in Philadelphia, the country's most prominent liberal district attorney is facing a vigorous challenge from a police-union-backed prosecutor he once fired.

It has been less than a year since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, spawning a national movement to reimagine the American criminal justice system and end race-based abuses.

Yet with shootings spiking in cities nationwide during the pandemic, there are growing signs that the thirst for change is being blunted by fears of runaway crime.

Critical tests of just how far the pendulum has swung will come in the next several days and weeks, with a nationwide flurry of elections for mayor, district attorney and members of Congress. Although Republicans have long been skeptical of reform efforts, the races are concentrated in big cities and other areas that are friendly terrain for Democrats. They should offer, at least in theory, fertile ground for the sort of systemic overhauls that protesters who flooded the streets last summer were demanding.

Yet the proposals on offer from leading candidates have tended to be more modest. Some top contenders have even positioned themselves in opposition to the calls of activists for radical change, arguing that police and prosecutors need to be permitted to do their jobs so crime can be brought under control.

In New York, the idea of a police veteran and former Republican who has pledged to carry a gun in City Hall leaping to the front of a crowded Democratic mayoral field might have seemed unlikely at the height of the movement against police brutality last year.

But Eric Adams, Brooklyn's borough president, said his 22-year career as a police officer has been an asset, not a liability, at a time when crime is at the forefront of voters' minds. Shootings in New York City are up around 50 percent this year from last year, in line with trends seen in cities nationwide.

"Violent crime is the No. 1 issue. People want to be safe," Adams said.

The 60-year-old, who is Black and has said he was beaten by police as a teenager, also touts his credentials as a reformer inside and outside the New York Police Department. But police reform, he said, ranks lower among voter priorities. "It's No. 3 or 4," he said.

And Adams has not been afraid of appearing out of step with the reform movement. He has said stop-and-frisk - a much-maligned practice for which former mayor Mike Bloomberg apologized - can be a "great tool" when used correctly.

It is activists, Adams said, who are out of step with voters - especially those in the working-class Black and Brown communities that have been his base.

"I've never been in a situation in which I hear people say 'I want less police,' " Adams said. "Just because you're the loudest and most organized doesn't mean you're in the majority."

Other leading contenders in the June 22 primary also have distanced themselves from some of the more far-reaching changes sought by critics of the status quo. At a debate Thursday night, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang offered support for greater police accountability, while volunteering that "defund the police is the wrong approach."

That's consistent with the overall tone of the campaign, with core questions that animated protesters last summer being given short shrift by the major candidates.

New York's Black Lives Matter activists have been wary of Democrats embracing its brand without adopting its agenda. Last month, when Yang joined a 150-cyclist vigil for a Minneapolis man killed by police, he was heckled and labeled "pro-cop" until he left. (Adams had shown up for the vigil but did not try to join it.)

For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike touted their law-and-order credentials. Republican mayors such as Rudy Giuliani embraced the "broken windows" theory of policing, taking a zero-tolerance approach even to petty crimes. Joe Biden, as a senator, shepherded the 1994 crime bill into law, which, among its provisions, introduced mandatory life sentences for repeat violent offenders.

But liberal criminal justice reformers have been ascendant in recent years. In cities across the country, candidates - most of them Democrats - have campaigned and won on platforms of ending mass incarceration, holding police accountable and transforming systems of cash bail. National Democratic leaders, such as Biden, have walked back their previous hard-line stands.

Voters have yet to unseat those reformers in any major race. But seams have begun to show.

In 2016, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx won 72 percent of the vote, putting a reform-minded prosecutor in charge in Chicago.

Four years later, amid surging crime, Foxx won re-election, but with just 54 percent of the vote following a bruising Democratic primary.

Another contentious intraparty fight has emerged this spring in Philadelphia, where Democrats on Tuesday will choose whether to retain Larry Krasner as district attorney.

Four years ago, the shock victory of the longtime civil rights lawyer was a signal accomplishment in the reform community.

Since then, Krasner has delivered on an array of promises, including exonerating 20 people whose convictions were marred by misconduct, ending prosecution for many low-level crimes and mandating that prosecutors disclose how much jail sentences will cost city taxpayers.

The changes have thrilled liberals but also have spawned a backlash - particularly among the police.

In recent months, Philadelphia's police union has poured its energies into supporting challenger Carlos Vega and defeating Krasner. John McNesby, who leads the union, said that as rates of violent crime have climbed, more and more residents have joined the push to unseat the crusading district attorney.

"A year or two ago, it was just us out there screaming and yelling and banging our chests about Larry Krasner," McNesby said. "And now it's the whole city."

Not everyone, of course. Krasner still has more than his share of allies.

Nicholas O'Rourke, a Black pastor who ran for city council in 2019, said that Krasner had brought activists into high-level meetings, incorporating ideas that were ignored by the prosecutors who regularly used to win the office of district attorney.

"We've seen some stuff that has been pretty revolutionary come out of this district attorney's office," said O'Rourke, who is now the Pennsylvania director of the left-wing Working Families Party.

Krasner's work with Black Lives Matter in 2017 gave him credibility with Black and white liberal voters. But the movement is more fractious, and less focused on electoral politics, than the police unions trying to unseat Krasner.

Analysts say the connection between his policies and the surge in crime is tenuous, at best.

"You read the newspaper every day and it's a body count," said Jules Epstein, a longtime Philadelphia defense lawyer who directs advocacy programs at Temple University's law school. "But I don't think much of any of that can fairly be attributed to a district attorney's policies."

Still, Vega, a veteran of the district attorney's office who was laid off when Krasner took over, has tried.

In forums and debates, the challenger has been unafraid to blame Krasner for rising crime.

"I've never heard him say ... 'Maybe I dropped the ball on this,' " Vega said of Krasner.

In an interview, Krasner scoffed at his opponents' arguments, saying they were in denial about how skeptical voters had grown of policing since last summer's protests. The rising crime rate, he argued, could be explained best by the "shutdown in the fabric of society" caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with more Philadelphians out of work, and more cultural and sports activities closed off.

In testy exchanges on the debate stage, Krasner has characterized Vega as an opponent of reform whose approach had already failed the city.

"Part of the reason we've had 20 exonerations is we were dealing with an office, when my opponent was there, where the truth didn't matter," Krasner said. "If you could convict someone, you convicted them."

Across the state, in Pittsburgh, there's another intraparty battle. But in this case, the main challenge is coming from the left.

The mayor, Democrat Bill Peduto, is running as a progressive who has enacted reforms, including by reallocating millions in police funds to community programs.

His biggest rival, state Rep. Ed Gainey, however, charges that the mayor has not gone nearly far enough and should have done more to align himself with last year's protests.

"Instead of embracing that movement for justice," Gainey said, "he pushed them away."

Gainey said he knows well the toll of crime; five years ago, his sister was murdered. But he also said he believes that authorities need to invest in public health and other social welfare programs, not more law enforcement.

"We can never incarcerate our way out of violence," he said.

That has been a mainstream Democratic mantra in recent years. But in cities where violence is rising, some are starting to take positions that sound more like the law-and-order candidates of old.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently stunned the political world in Atlanta by announcing that she would not seek another term. At a news conference where she fought back tears, she acknowledged that the city's crime wave - which she has blamed on the pandemic - had taken a toll.

Bottoms said she had not been concerned about her re-election prospects. But challengers had emerged and made clear they planned to take a tougher line on crime.

Among them is Felicia Moore, the city council president, who said in an interview that rebuilding the police department - which has lost more than 400 officers amid sagging morale - would be among her highest priorities.

"The No. 1 issue across the city has been the rise in crime," said Moore who, like Bottoms, is a Democrat. "People want to feel safer in their community."

Republicans, of course, also have challenged Democrats on crime.

In New Mexico, where Democrats are working to hold the safe House seat vacated by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Republicans have seized on the city's crime rate to try to win over suburban Albuquerque voters.

Last month, the Democratic nominee, state Rep. Melanie Stansbury, told a forum for Black voters that she supported the BREATHE Act, a legislative proposal by the Movement for Black Lives which would take money from federal law enforcement grants and give it to social services.

State Sen. Mark Moores, the GOP's nominee, began running ads accusing Stansbury of wanting to "defund the police."

"We're living in one of the most violent cities in the country right now," Moores said in an interview after a campaign stop this month. Supporting the BREATHE Act, he said, "sends the wrong message."

Stansbury called Moores's claim "outrageous," pointing out that she had directed millions more in funding for public safety in the city. In two debates with Moores, as the Republican highlighted BREATHE Act components such as closing federal prisons, the Democrat pivoted back to her record. In the second debate, Moores pointed to the widower of a murder victim who was seated in the audience, challenging Stansbury to explain her position to him.

In a statement to The Washington Post, her campaign walked back her comments on the BREATHE Act, noting that the legislation has not been introduced in Congress and saying she would "look to other solutions" if the act was "wrong for New Mexicans."

In recent days, she began running a TV ad that might have been unlikely for a Democrat had it come in the heat of last year's Black Lives Matter protests: a retired Albuquerque police officer, defending Stansbury's record on law enforcement.

- - -

Weigel reported from Philadelphia and Albuquerque.

 

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