One of the top candidates for mayor of New York is a former police captain who has said addressing the city’s surging violent crime rate will be his highest priority.
In New Mexico, a Democrat running for Congress in a left-of-center suburban district has been put on the defensive for supporting a measure to cut spending on law enforcement.
And in Philadelphia, the country’s most prominent liberal district attorney is facing a vigorous challenge from a police-union-backed prosecutor he once fired.
It has been less than a year since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, spawning a national movement to reimagine the American criminal justice system and end race-based abuses.
Yet with shootings spiking in cities nationwide during the pandemic, there are growing signs that the thirst for change is being blunted by fears of runaway crime.
Critical tests of just how far the pendulum has swung will come in the next several days and weeks, with a nationwide flurry of elections for mayor, district attorney and members of Congress. Although Republicans have long been skeptical of reform efforts, the races are concentrated in big cities and other areas that are friendly terrain for Democrats. They should offer, at least in theory, fertile ground for the sort of systemic overhauls that protesters who flooded the streets last summer were demanding.
Yet the proposals on offer from leading candidates have tended to be more modest. Some top contenders have even positioned themselves in opposition to the calls of activists for radical change, arguing that police and prosecutors need to be permitted to do their jobs so crime can be brought under control.
In New York, the idea of a police veteran and former Republican who has pledged to carry a gun in City Hall leaping to the front of a crowded Democratic mayoral field might have seemed unlikely at the height of the movement against police brutality last year.
But Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president, said his 22-year career as a police officer has been an asset, not a liability, at a time when crime is at the forefront of voters’ minds. Shootings in New York City are up around 50 percent this year from last year, in line with trends seen in cities nationwide.
“Violent crime is the No. 1 issue. People want to be safe,” Adams said.
The 60-year-old, who is Black and has said he was beaten by police as a teenager, also touts his credentials as a reformer inside and outside the New York Police Department. But police reform, he said, ranks lower among voter priorities. “It’s No. 3 or 4,” he said.
And Adams has not been afraid of appearing out of step with the reform movement. He has said stop-and-frisk – a much-maligned practice for which former mayor Mike Bloomberg apologized – can be a “great tool” when used correctly.
It is activists, Adams said, who are out of step with voters – especially those in the working-class Black and Brown communities that have been his base.
“I’ve never been in a situation in which I hear people say ‘I want less police,’ ” Adams said. “Just because you’re the loudest and most organized doesn’t mean you’re in the majority.”
Other leading contenders in the June 22 primary also have distanced themselves from some of the more far-reaching changes sought by critics of the status quo. At a debate Thursday night, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang offered support for greater police accountability, while volunteering that “defund the police is the wrong approach.”
That’s consistent with the overall tone of the campaign, with core questions that animated protesters last summer being given short shrift by the major candidates.
New York’s Black Lives Matter activists have been wary of Democrats embracing its brand without adopting its agenda. Last month, when Yang joined a 150-cyclist vigil for a Minneapolis man killed by police, he was heckled and labeled “pro-cop” until he left. (Adams had shown up for the vigil but did not try to join…