Sami Shamlan came to New York 11 years ago hoping to give his family a better life. A lawyer in Yemen, he now spends 10 to 12 hours a day driving for Uber to show his four children “what an American work ethic looks like.” But lately, he’s been losing faith in the American dream.
Crime has gotten so bad in Mr. Shamlan’s Harlem neighborhood that he no longer lets his children play outside. He says he hears gunshots almost every night. And while he hasn’t decided which candidate he’ll support in next week’s Democratic primary for mayor, he’s sure of one thing: It won’t be anyone who wants to “defund the police.”
“The police have just gone away,” says Mr. Shamlan. “I hope it all goes back to normal, because we are all worried about our kids.”
Why We Wrote This
The leading Democrats vying to become New York’s next mayor are promising more policing – a sign of how the debate has moved since last summer’s call to “defund the police.”
The spike in gun violence represents a painful reversal: Before 2020, violent crime in New York was at record lows. But as the city was hit by the pandemic and then protests against police brutality swept the nation, that progress slipped. Last year was the city’s most violent in a decade, and 2021 is on track to be even worse. Violent crime has not only increased overall, but it has spilled over into previously safe, tourist-heavy areas such as Times Square and Greenwich Village.
Crime is now the No. 1 issue in the mayoral race, according to recent surveys. The candidates vying for the Democratic nomination – the winner of which will almost certainly become the city’s next mayor – have been sharply divided over how best to address the violence, particularly when it comes to policing. Relative moderates, like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, are running on platforms that would increase the role of the New York Police Department. More left-wing candidates, such as civil rights activist Maya Wiley and city Comptroller Scott Stringer, want to reallocate funds away from the NYPD.
With crime rates rising nationally, a similar debate over how to balance public safety and racial justice will likely be front and center in the 2022 midterm elections. After Republicans flipped 15 House seats in 2020, several Democratic lawmakers blamed the left’s “defund the police” messaging for their party’s losses. As Democrats prepare to defend their razor-thin congressional majorities, New York’s mayoral race may be an early indicator of just how potent the issue will be – and how quickly the pendulum may be swinging back.
“Here we are in the most liberal city in America – but the most liberal city in America depends on safety,” says Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. “The underlying point here is that this is not a negotiable service.”
“We’ve seen the streets change”
Thus far, it seems as if #DefundthePolice is not winning over most New Yorkers. Ms. Garcia received the endorsements of both The New York Times and the New York Post. Although polling has been limited and complicated given the city’s new implementation of ranked-choice voting, which will allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, Ms. Garcia, Mr. Adams, and Mr. Yang have most often been in the top three.
A former officer who has leaned heavily on his NYPD background and called stop-and-frisk “a great tool,” Mr. Adams has been leading in the latest polls, with nearly half of likely voters ranking crime and public safety as the top priority for the next administration. If elected, Mr. Adams says he will implement gun “spot checks” at bus and train stations and “significantly increase” funding to the city’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Eric Adams, I like him. I like that he’s an African American male like myself and he’s been in the system,” says Jordan Johnson, buying flavored ice on a street corner in Harlem to combat the summer heat, as sirens wail in the background.
“We definitely should not be defunding the police,” says Mr. Johnson. “There were two shootouts just last week.”
There have been 687 shooting victims so far this year, a 68% increase from 2020. Hate crimes against Asians are up 335% in May 2021, and almost 200% against LGBTQ New Yorkers. On Memorial Day alone, seven shootings occurred across the five boroughs within six hours.
“I am listening to voters, and what voters say is that they aren’t feeling safe right now,” says Ms. Garcia at a campaign stop in Richmond Hill in Queens, home to the largest Sikh population in the city. Ms. Garcia is campaigning on a promise to get 10,000 illegal guns off New York City streets during her first year in office, partly by upping the city’s buyback rebate from $200 to $2,000. She wants to reassign more police personnel to the neighborhood policing unit and increase police presence on the subway, among other measures.
“We need to have neighborhood policing and patrols walking the beat like they used to back in the day,” says Ms. Garcia in an interview, “because we cannot live in a city where we see gun violence go up again.”
Nearly all the Democratic candidates say they’ve felt the change in the city firsthand.
“In our neighborhood, Evelyn and I, we’ve seen the streets change,” Mr. Yang says. He’s just wrapped up an event at a Jewish center in Kew Garden Hills, also in Queens, during which he proclaims, to loud cheers from the crowd, that “defunding the police is the wrong answer for our city.” If elected, Mr. Yang promises to increase police presence at the city’s 472 subway stations as well as on the streets, while “bolstering the detective ranks” to improve crime-solving rates.
“It’s real,” Evelyn Yang, Mr. Yang’s wife, agrees. “I grew up in Flushing and Bayside, and I have never felt unsafe in this city. Never in my life. And now I do a little dance, like a little 360 spin when I go outside.”
High unemployment, record homelessness
Experts offer several potential reasons for the recent violence, such as psychological and economic distress from the pandemic and greater distrust of the police following last summer’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The number of unemployed New Yorkers more than quadrupled between March and May of 2020, and the city’s unemployment rate is still more than 11% – three times what it was before the pandemic. New York was already experiencing record homelessness among single adults before the pandemic began, a problem that has only increased in the past year. In 2020, almost 120,000 additional New York City households were added to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
Many activists on the left argue that focusing on those problems, rather than policing, is the best way to lower the city’s crime rates.
“If we actually start hitting at most of these issues, we’ll see that at the end of the day, most of [the gun violence] will be solved,” says Anthony Beckford, president and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter-Brooklyn Chapter. “It is a very desperate cry out for help out here.”
Mr. Beckford is making the rounds at an anti-gun-violence event in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, where community groups pass out food and face masks. Children shriek and chase one another on the playground, while young men compete in a basketball game as four NYPD officers cheer from the sidelines.
Diane Lucas, a young mother bouncing her daughter Nzuri on her hip, has lived in Bedford–Stuyvesant for more than decade. She says she’s noticed a definite uptick in neighborhood violence this past year. She’s also seen way more homeless people than ever before.
“My No. 1 priority in the mayoral race is having someone who focuses on [crime] prevention instead of what we are doing now, which is reactive,” says Ms. Lucas. “The rise in crime is a response to something: People are struggling.”
Handing out pantry staples and toys, mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan pitches locals on his plans for the city. If elected, Mr. Donovan, who served as U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, says he’d focus on creating “15-minute neighborhoods,” where all New Yorkers can easily access a good education, transportation, and fresh food without long commutes.
“I know we can have both safety and respect at the same time,” says Mr. Donovan, who has struggled to gain traction in the polls. “A big part of the challenge is that we are asking the police to do so many jobs.”
A false choice?
Most of the candidates from across the party’s spectrum actually offer variations on this same point: Public safety and racial justice don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and police officers could benefit from supplementary support from social workers and mental health experts.
“We are not going to say there is a choice between safety and violence perpetuated by police officers who go rogue. That is a false choice,” says Ms. Wiley at an event in the Bronx’s Co-Op City, a series of high-rise buildings housing more than 43,000. After speaking to a crowd of roughly two dozen, half of whom appear to be reporters, Ms. Wiley joins in with the Bartow Swingers, a local dance group practicing nearby.
Ms. Wiley, a former counsel to current Mayor Bill de Blasio, appears to have largely consolidated the support of progressives following controversies engulfing Mr. Stringer and the campaign of Dianne Morales. She recently earned high-profile endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and has been moving up in the polls.
Still, even the candidates who are promising to cut funding for the police – Ms. Wiley would cut the NYPD’s annual $6 billion budget by $1 billion, and Mr. Donovan would decrease the budget by $250 million annually for four years – appear uncomfortable with the term “defund.”
“I don’t use the word ‘defund,’” says Ms. Wiley, pointedly. Mr. Donovan clarifies that he would “reinvest.”
Progressive politicians need to explain better what “defund the police” actually means, says New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, another left-wing lawmaker who is backing Ms. Wiley.
“We need another entity to respond to mental health crises, nonviolent crises,” says Congressman Bowman, who won his Democratic primary in 2020 against a 16-term incumbent. “Call it defund or refund – meaning, reallocate the resources where they need to go.” Still, he allows, that message may not work everywhere.
“Each Democrat needs to run on their own platform,” he says. “You got to run your own race, you know?”