Will Tuesday Change How We Talk About Crime?

Left-wing candidates for mayor vow to redefine “public safety.”

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock/REUTERS
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock/REUTERS

Last year it seemed like policing in America might finally change, after the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests from coast to coast built a groundswell of support for major upheavals in law enforcement. Minneapolis captured the moment, where the city council pledged to disband the police department whose officer murdered George Floyd, the event that initially set off the protests.

Today such efforts have run into a brick wall of mayors and other politicians who deflected changes and even defended police against accusations of excessive force against protesters. There were few elections in 2020 that could’ve changed city leadership, leaving local activists stuck dealing with the same officials they had long fought.

But an avalanche of mayoral elections next week could shift city halls from Boston and Buffalo to Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle leftward, and test whether the left can govern differently where it emerges victorious.

India Walton, the socialist candidate who faces a general-election rematch against Buffalo mayor Byron Brown after beating him in the Democratic primary, relishes the chance to draw such fault lines. “A hypermilitarized and overfunded police department has not solved our crime problem, so we have to do something different,” she told Intelligencer. “Progressive candidates, progressive leadership, and folks who hold our values are more interested in getting to the root causes of crime all across the board and not just punishing it afterwards.”

That’s why, she said, “we’re talking about a quality education for all, we’re talking about health care for all, we’re talking about affordable housing for all, we’re talking about good living-wage jobs for everyone.”

Other progressive candidates, such as Michelle Wu in Boston and Ed Gainey in Pittsburgh, are not taking up the mantle of socialism like Walton, and there are significant divergences between them on whether to target police budgets. But their campaigns are united around expanding the range of topics associated with public safety, making the case that governments must look beyond the narrow bounds of law-enforcement policy. And they insist that when they propose ambitious transit, housing, or health plans, it’s not that they prioritize those over crime and public safety. They believe that focusing on these issues can reduce crime and improve public safety in the first place.

Walton says that government leadership has “created the conditions to allow criminality to flourish,” partly through the defunding of public services.

When polls demonstrate that the public is concerned about crime, the national discourse usually shifts to tough-on-crime solutions, whose supporters act as if proponents of police reform don’t believe that crime is a problem. This obscures the reality that reformers just have a vastly different view on how to prevent and reduce it.

In the context of elections, it’s largely fallen to prosecutors to dispel that expectation in recent years. Just this spring, reform candidates won in Philadelphia and Manhattan amid predictions that the country’s rising homicide rate would doom people’s receptiveness to their messaging. But this strategy has limits. Prosecutors can usher in transformative change, but they are by and large working within the constraints of the criminal legal system. If the left’s longer-term goal on public safety is to address “root causes,” they have to reach into corners of local policy that district attorneys cannot touch.

In Cleveland, candidate Justin Bibb talks of building “permanent supportive housing” for homeless people as a way to reduce the population of jails, where they often end up. He also wants to promote a denser network of retail and grocery stores, along with services like health-care facilities and libraries, within 15 minutes of where people live. “I think everything from health to housing and economic development must be part of this conversation, because it really boils down to economic opportunity,” Bibb told Intelligencer. “When you have opportunities in neighborhoods, people are less likely to commit crime.”

Boston’s Wu has similarly vowed to promote public safety through “transit justice” and has championed fare-free transit for years during her time on the city council.

Pittsburgh candidate Ed Gainey, who already defeated the incumbent mayor in the Democratic primary and is now favored on Tuesday, similarly talks of strengthening public health and housing programs as the pathway to fighting violence. “What is going on internally that makes you want to get up and kill somebody?” he asked in a recent interview. “No public safety, no law enforcement is gonna be able to solve that equation. That equation can only be solved when we talk about dealing with it from a public health and mental health perspective.”

In Minneapolis, voters on Tuesday will decide whether the city should follow through on dissolving its police department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that would juxtapose some policing functions with other services.

Many of the city’s mayoral candidates support that idea, including Kate Knuth and Sheila Nezhad, who have both asked their voters to rank the other second in the ranked-choice contest. Their messaging diverged in conversations with Intelligencer: Knuth is quick to note the importance of maintaining a police force, whereas Nezhad quotes police abolitionists. Still, they mirror each other’s expansive approach to discussing safety: rent control, decriminalizing sex work, and championing more public spaces. Safety is about “more libraries, more schools, more parks,” Nezhad said, and Knuth cited research that shows a connection between “increasing green space” and “reducing gun violence.”

Overshadowing the progressive renaissance, of course, has been Eric Adams, the former NYPD captain who is on track to become New York City’s next mayor, after derailing the left in the primary. Adams largely anchored his campaign on an inverse message: To reduce crime, start by strengthening the tools of law enforcement, such as bringing back a major plainclothes unit. But Adams also ran on longer-term crime-prevention measures, such as increasing access to mental health services and fighting underemployment. Adams pulled off his victory by marrying his “extremely conservative on crime” persona with a personal narrative of having been a teenage victim of police brutality who worked to reform the NYPD from the inside.

Still, in the context of a nationwide rise in homicides, his win became evidence for the argument that the left does not take matters of crime seriously, and other candidates running this fall have played on that perception. But Walton, for one, rejects that narrative.

“Those of us on the left care about crime because we live in the communities in which we serve and which we seek to serve,” Walton said. “I’m a mother … and I am hyperaware of the dangerous environment that we live in here in Buffalo and all over the nation.”

Will Tuesday Change How We Talk About Crime?