Fears of a bloody summer have become a focal point of New York City’s mayoral race as residents go to the polls in primaries to choose Democratic and Republican candidates amid rising violent crime across the US.
Homicides and other violent crimes that shot up in 2020 are continuing their national rise, and President Joe Biden will speak on Wednesday about what he “is going to do to help address” rising crime, especially gun violence, “as we’ve seen around the country it is a concern of many Americans”, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.
Gun crime has seen a sharp rise in major metropolitan areas, and especially in the nation’s largest city, New York. Shooting incidents rose 73 percent in May 2021 over the previous year, as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and New York begins to reopen, according to New York Police Department numbers cited by CNN.
This is weighing on voters minds, according to an NY1/Ipsos poll released June 7 (PDF). The poll found that 46 percent of voters view crime as their primary concern, outpacing affordable housing at 45 percent and COVID-19 at 32 percent.
Democratic candidate for New York City Mayor Maya Wiley speaks to voters and media while campaigning at the Co-op City housing complex in New York City on June 7, 2021 [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]
Democrat Eric Adams, a former New York Police Department captain and president of the Brooklyn borough, has argued he is best-suited to address rising crime rates, and voters appear to be listening.
An Ipsos poll released June 21 found surveyed likely voters viewed Adams as the best candidate to handle the crime increases.
The poll also suggested Adams was leading the pack of 11 Democratic candidates with 28 percent support.
Though far short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright, Adams is still well-positioned under New York City’s new ranked voting system, which allows New Yorkers to choose candidates based on preferences, then knocks out the lowest-ranking candidates in several rounds until a winner is selected.
Democratic candidate for New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks during a campaign appearance in Brooklyn, New York, June 11, 2021 [Brendan McDermid/Reuters]
Adams has argued against calls to “defund the police” that gained traction after former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, saying it was a slogan adopted by affluent white people.
Those who support defunding have called for those funds to be diverted to other social service programmes that focus on crime prevention through bettering people’s living conditions.
Black communities do not agree with the approach. Adams, who is Black, has claimed, saying more police are needed.
When popular progressive New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Maya Wiley, who has called to slash the NYPD’s budget by $1bn, Adams released a statement criticising the two for their calls to defund police.
“They are putting slogans and politics in front of public safety and would endanger the lives of New Yorkers”, he said.
A person holds a sign that reads ‘Back the Blue,’ during a Seattle rally in support of police and other law enforcement officers on July 15, 2020. The group was met by a small group of counterprotesters from Black Lives Matter and other groups [File: Ted S Warren/AP Photo]
But Ernesto Lopez, a research specialist for the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), told Al Jazeera that while “decreased budgets could diminish police capacity to proactively reduce crime” and “some research suggests that the ‘defunding’ aspect can reduce police officer motivation, thereby limiting more proactive policing”, he is “less confident in that this is driving the increase [in violence]”.
Increase or defund
The National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has agreed with Adams’ sentiment and said cities “turned the keys over to the ‘Defund the Police‘ mob”, in an apparent reference to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that arose across the US after Floyd’s death.
FOP tweeted an image on May 25 showing “skyrocketing murder rates” in many major cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon which saw a staggering 800 percent increase in murder rates as of May 2021, FOP claimed.
Minneapolis and Portland were at the forefront of police defunding, but their police budgets were cut by 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Portland’s homicide rate increase is staggering, but the total number of homicides was 10 in May 2021, increasing from two in May 2020, according to city data.
This is about a 500 percent jump, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Los Angeles and Chicago cut their budgets to a similar degree, by about 5 percent in LA and 3 percent in Chicago. These numbers came far short of what activists wanted.
A man stands behind Chicago police crime scene tape, at the scene of a gun shooting, on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, on July 26, 2020 [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]
Chicago has seen increases in violent crime. Its deadliest day of 2021 was June 15, with eight killed in shootings, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
But crime rates are rising across the US, regardless of whether police budgets decreased, remain steady or increased. There is little evidence to suggest that defunding police departments has increased crime.
Houston and Nashville, two cities run by Democratic mayors, increased their funding for police during the past year. Houston has seen homicides rise by 35 percent and Nashville’s homicides in January and February double over the same period in 2020, according to local media.
Criminologists and other experts warned that increases in crime are caused by myriad factors. Some are structural and have been a part of society for generations. The effects of COVID-19 cannot be ignored, either.
CJC research specialist Lopez said it “is also worth noting that homicides were approximately 20 percent higher the first quarter of 2020, before the death of George Floyd.”
While some have criticised the “defund the police” model of investing in community-based violence prevention programmes, the Safe Streets programme in Baltimore shows promise.
The Safe Streets programme describes itself as an “evidence-based, public health program to reduce gun violence among youth”. The programme in McElderry Park and Belair-Edison, two historically dangerous neighbourhoods of East Baltimore, is overseen by Living Classrooms.
“Safe Streets employs Outreach Workers to go into the community and mediate disputes before they escalate to violence while simultaneously recruiting troubled or adjudicated youth to be a part of the program,” their website stated.
A rally against the deaths of Black women and girls killed by police takes place in Baltimore during a Juneteenth demonstration against racial and gender inequality on June 19, 2020 [File: Rosem Morton/Reuters]
The programme conducted 661 mediations in 2020 and only four of the 335 homicides in Baltimore that year occurred in the two neighbourhoods, according to its website.
Calls for community responses to crime came as public trust in law enforcement plummeted. Last June, 45 percent of people wanted to “preserve law and order” versus 44 percent who favoured the “right to protest”, an Ipsos poll found.
However, this sentiment has shifted, according to an Ipsos poll from March, where 31 percent of respondents favoured the right to protest and 45 percent wanted to preserve law and order.
Police have long faced criticism in the US. Tensions between police and activists have been consistently tense since 2014, when Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
The public outcry and protests help launch the BLM movement. Killings have continued, and so have the protests. Trust in law enforcement plummeted in the middle of last year, when the US saw consistent protests against racism and police brutality.
Rather than viewing BLM as a factor in crime increases, it should perhaps be seen as “a reflection of current social conditions”, Lopez said.
“There is a solid body of research that supports as police legitimacy, and even general government legitimacy, goes down, crime can go up”, he continued.
“As legitimacy decreases people simply just comply less with the law”, and “there tends to be less cooperation with police. This impedes the ability of police to investigate crime and apprehend suspects.”