London Breed, mayor of San Francisco, had to state the obvious: It was, in fact, not too dangerous for the camera crew of Good Morning America to film a segment downtown in her city. “San Francisco also has an overall violent crime rate that is lower than other large cities,” Breed said a few weeks ago. “Sadly, some of the news coverage conflate[s] the reasons or do[es] not provide the full picture of why big retailers and other businesses in San Francisco are deciding to leave or transfer ownership of their operations.”
Breed was forced to deliver the statement after reporter Matt Gutman said on the air that he and his crew were advised to film their 4 a.m. segment on the closure of the Westfield mall far from the actual site of the shopping center. The declaration drew national headlines and spurred another round of doomsaying over San Francisco — a city that has grappled with a spike in homelessness and various sorts of crimes, including carjackings, during the pandemic. Actual violent crime in San Francisco remains low for a major U.S. city — it has nowhere near the murder rate of Chicago or Philadelphia — but a sense of fear has pervaded there for a number of years. High housing costs have also fueled a working-class exodus from the tech mecca.
None of this, though, means a camera crew can’t film an early morning segment. San Francisco is not a Ukrainian battlefield. American journalists have captured footage from far more dangerous environs for many decades. In fact, there is no U.S. city, anywhere, where a TV crew can’t show up to film. The GMA producers deserve all of the opprobrium sent their way. But Breed, like Eric Adams in New York, must reckon with an uncomfortable reality: She helped make this happen. She set the stage, as the most powerful elected official in San Francisco, for a major television network to decide that her city is no longer safe.
Last year, San Franciscans voted, overwhelmingly, to recall their district attorney, Chesa Boudin. A proud progressive and proponent of criminal-justice reform, Boudin had been elected in 2019, shortly before the pandemic. The various social and public-safety ills that came with the pandemic, as well as San Francisco’s long-running affordability crisis, were laid at his feet. Every drug-addicted person who passed out in the Tenderloin and every stolen Mercedes were, in the view of his sharpest critics, his fault.
Breed didn’t formally endorse the recall, but she never defended Boudin either. She criticized him in public, declaring in 2022, “I am not necessarily on the same page with a number of things that he’s doing.” She believed Boudin was too soft on criminals and that his reform efforts were fueling the city’s crime spike. One of her close allies, a former prosecutor in Boudin’s office, helped lead the recall campaign. Once he was defeated, Breed appointed her as the new district attorney. (Had Breed been a savvier or more cynical operator, she would have left Boudin alone or tried to scuttle the recall.) Once Boudin was thrown out of office, a crucial punching bag was removed — now, it seemed, the voters could wise up, shifting blame on San Francisco’s quality-of-life pitfalls from the DA’s office to City Hall.
San Francisco’s first Black female mayor was once a rising political star in a city that quite literally manufactures them: Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and Gavin Newsom all launched their careers there. Today, Breed is badly damaged, carrying dismal poll numbers that could imperil her reelection chances next year. There’s a rather simple political lesson here — you reap what you sow. Breed never forcefully counteracted any of the hyperbolic narratives around life in San Francisco. When it suited her, she was happy to indulge in declinism and let Boudin fail.
In New York, Adams is grappling with a similar dynamic. Crime is elevated from 2019 levels but is historically not very high. Shootings and murders have fallen from last year. Homelessness, along with the ongoing migrant influx, is still a challenge, and there are too many unhoused and mentally ill people forced to walk the streets. There’s a disturbing randomness to today’s crime picture. Some New Yorkers fear getting shoved onto a subway track in midtown or stabbed on a busy sidewalk.
But all of this, in some sense, is manageable. New York is a much safer city than it was in the 1990s and even the 2000s. Both New York and San Francisco have struggled with the rise of remote work and the emptying out of once thriving downtowns. No single mayor can reverse these trends, and both Breed and Adams will have to get creative about repurposing vacant storefronts and office spaces while somehow replacing the lost commuter foot traffic.
Adams, though, has never spoken in a particularly measured way about the city he now governs. “Thirty years later, we’re right back where we started from. And that’s unacceptable,” Adams said in 2021, when he was campaigning on a tough-on-crime platform. “The enemy is winning, and we are waving a big white flag of surrender.”
When Adams entered City Hall, his rhetoric did not shift. “I have never in my professional career — I have never witnessed crime at this level,” he told Good Day New York last year. The remarks, on a factual level, were absurd. As a transit officer and police captain, Adams had patrolled the city in the early 1990s, when as many as 2,000 people per year were murdered. In 2022, less than 500 homicides were recorded.
Today, Adams is no longer so dire when it comes to crime in New York, and he’s eager to tout the falling rates of violent incidents. It’s not clear, however, that enough New Yorkers will believe him come 2025, when he seeks reelection. Concerns over public safety remain high. Adams-friendly TV broadcasters and the New York Post report aggressively and continuously on crime, and it was Adams who was happy, for more than a year, to validate their narratives. The Post, growing more skeptical of Adams — producing relentless coverage of his resigning police commissioner — could damage him further if the paper ever starts to treat him like its bête noire, Bill de Blasio, the liberal former mayor.
The overriding question is if Adams will be able to declare victory over a sustained crime decline in another two years — or if too many voters will believe that New York has spun out of control to hand him a second term. Incumbent mayors are very hard to beat, and Adams has numerous strengths — including strong support from Black voters, labor unions, the city’s real-estate sector, and finance elites. Limited polling data has shown his approval rating ticking up again. (Breed, at this point, is more vulnerable in her own city.)
Still, Adams must beware. Narratives are sticky. A charismatic challenger buoyed by the city’s generous matching-funds program and left-leaning voters sick of the Adams era can make the mayor’s life difficult. The rapid turnover in his administration hasn’t helped. In Harlem, where Adams’s support is theoretically quite strong, his endorsed City Council candidate was just defeated by a wide margin by Yusef Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five. Adams must hope the same doesn’t happen to him in 2025.