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 “mobile 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.