How crime came to haunt the Democrats

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With Election Day looming, Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Manhattan last Thursday for a campaign stop few Democrats would have thought necessary over the summer, as Kathy Hochul, the incumbent governor of New York, opened a commanding lead over her Republican challenger, Rep. Lee Zeldin. In a season full of political uncertainties, at least her tenure in the governor’s mansion in Albany seemed secure.

But throughout the course of the fall that sense of security has withered, necessitating the vice president’s visit in the heavily Democratic state. Hochul is still favored to win, but the gubernatorial election was never supposed to be a source of anxiety for state or national Democrats, who had hoped that imperiled access to abortion rights would motivate voters across the country, perhaps even reversing the historical congressional midterm trend of the party in control of the White House losing seats on Capitol Hill.

Police crime scene tape
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

But that hope has all but vanished, as outrage over the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling appears to have reached its electoral limit. Inflation anxiety, which seemed to dip in the late summer, has returned.

But no issue has proved as vexing for Democrats as the rise in violent crime, which has hounded Hochul and other candidates across the country, with high-profile incidents dominating the news and rendering statistics largely irrelevant: subway assaults in New York, including several people pushed to their deaths; a professional football star carjacked in downtown Washington, D.C.; 11 people fatally shot over Labor Day weekend in Chicago.

Exactly what causes crime to rise — and drop — has been a study of intense debate since the advent of criminology in the mid-18th century. Experts still have not reached a consensus on what caused crime to fall precipitously in the early 1990s, a trend that would continue for more than two decades. Debates over why rates of violent crime started to rise sharply around the time the coronavirus pandemic began are no less contentious, with a vertiginous mix of factors — government policy, economic anxiety, social isolation — all likely playing a role.

According to the latest survey from the Major Cities Chiefs Association both murders and rapes have fallen in the first nine months of 2022, relative to the same period in 2021. Aggravated assault and robbery, however, have both continued to rise.

A crime scene
A crime scene near the White House in February 2014. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Only crime doesn’t necessarily feel complex to voters. That reality has benefited Republicans, who have been pressing crime as an issue for months, assailing Democrats for their supposed lack of empathy for both police officers and the victims of violent crime. The Washington Post found that Republicans ran an astonishing 53,000 television ads related to crime in the first three weeks of September, just as voters returning from late summer vacations were starting to evaluate candidates.

’“Peoples perception of safety is a mix of their own most recent experiences, events recounted by friends and neighbors, and what they hear about from the news,” Brandon del Pozo, who spent 19 years with the New York Police Department and later served as the police chief in Burlington, Vt., told Yahoo News in a text message. “If their recent experiences are of a person with mental illness yelling at them on the subway, their friends say the same, and they read that a mentally ill person pushed someone onto the tracks, they aren’t going to feel safe. It’s human nature.”

Protesters in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Conservatives point to the social justice protests that followed George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer two years ago, when calls to defund the police briefly became commonplace in progressive circles — and were sometimes amplified by the most liberal elected officials. They charge that demonization of law enforcement has fostered a prevailing spirit of lawlessness, emboldening criminals and dispiriting law enforcement officers.

“The loss of morale has led to a loss of productivity,” Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia told Yahoo News.

Now even seemingly unassailable Democratic redoubts are being forced to reexamine criminal justice reforms like ending cash bail and imposing stricter oversight on police departments. Elected officials who had supported those and other progressive policies are being forced to explain themselves to voters — often, the same voters who had previously elected them.

Democrats, of course, have their own version of events, one they have been desperate to proffer in the face of hyperbolic Republican attacks. As Democrats will point out, crime went down for most of the eight years that President Barack Obama was in the White House, only starting to rise near the end of his second term. A much more steep rise took place during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Today, violent crime is 40% higher in states Trump won than in those won by Biden, according to a recent study by center-left think tank Third Way. The study also found that of the 10 states with the highest murder rates in 2020, eight have consistently voted for Republican presidential nominees.

Karen Bass
Los Angeles Democratic mayoral candidate Karen Bass. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The headlines themselves are nevertheless jarring. In Los Angeles, residents were stunned when, in January, a disturbed homeless man killed a 24-year-old furniture store employee in the downtown Hancock Park neighborhood, where the streets are often busy with locals and tourists.

Democratic mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass, a longtime South Los Angeles community activist, is currently in a surprisingly tight race with Brentwood billionaire Rick Caruso, who has made crime and homelessness the central themes of his campaign. His critics say that his outrage over crime and disorder masks a lack of coherent policies.

If nothing else, his candidacy has forced Bass — who, like Hochul in New York, remains a favorite — to acknowledge that crime is not merely a conservative talking point. “Angelenos all around the city are not feeling safe,” Bass said after two men were arrested for breaking into her house and stealing guns. “My safety was shattered.”

Democrats’ arguments fail to break through

Abortion rights activists at the Supreme Court
Abortion rights activists at the Supreme Court react to the overturning in June of Roe v. Wade. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The dismaying persistence of violent crime has become an especially prominent campaign issue in Midwestern states where Democrats were hoping to salvage their Senate majority. They thought they could do so by foregrounding abortion and threats to democracy, much as Hochul has done in New York.

For much of the summer, the strategy seemed to work, especially as raw feelings over the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade lingered.

Then came Republican ads, racially charged and frequently deceptive, tending to exaggerate the threat of criminal behavior and misrepresent Democrats’ support for reform. In some ways, the attacks recalled the notorious Willie Horton ad that helped George H.W. Bush win the presidency in 1988 by painting his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis as a soft-on-crime liberal.

Democrats were, in the right’s insistent telling, aligned with Black Lives Matter against both police officers and victims of crime. They wanted to empty jails and prisons. They watched viral videos of looting without any compassion for small business owners and ordinary people.

A restaurant in Los Angeles is vandalized during a protest against the death of George Floyd
A restaurant in Los Angeles is vandalized during a protest against the death of George Floyd, May 30, 2020. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet sometimes, Republicans have had inadvertent help from the Democratic candidates themselves, as when Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. from Wisconsin and currently the state’s lieutenant governor, was found to have given a series of interviews to a Russian state-owned outlet in which he sharply criticized American police.

Like other Democrats, Barnes has used the violent Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as a rebuttal, pointing out that his opponent Sen. Ron Johnson has downplayed the severity of that day’s devastation. Many Capitol Police officers were seriously injured by the mob of Trump supporters seeking to keep the previous November’s presidential election results from being certified by Congress on that day. “I won’t be lectured about crime from somebody who supported a violent insurrection that left 140 officers injured,” Barnes said on MSNBC last month.

Pro-Trump protesters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021
Pro-Trump protesters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Despite weak approval numbers for Johnson, Barnes has not been able to close a gap in support. A poll conducted by the Marquette University Law School last month suggested a possible reason, finding that 85% of registered voters in the state were either highly or somewhat concerned about crime, with only inflation and public education emerging as issues of greater anxiety.

“Crime has been focal in many of the most heated races in the country where citizens are tired of crumbling public safety and are ready to hold elected leadership responsible,” Hannah Meyers, director of policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, told Yahoo News in an email.

The newfound resistance to criminal justice reform in some parts of the country comes after a stretch of several years during which elected officials — state legislators, district attorneys, mayors — were explicitly empowered by voters to enact liberal-minded criminal justice reforms like putting an end to cash bail, softening sentencing guidelines and imposing new police accountability measures.

In a debate against Zeldin last month, Hochul described hyperbolic media coverage of crime as a “conspiracy.” That the media devote inordinate attention to crime is a common charge, one that is supported by evidence. But media coverage frequently follows viewer interest, and growing interest in public safety is difficult to deny.

Lee Zeldin, left, and Kathy Hochul
Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, left, debates New York Democratic incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul, Oct. 25. (Mary Altaffer/AP Photo)

In effect, Democrats are trapped between the reforms they supported throughout much of the last decade and the rollbacks to those reforms some are now calling for. In New York, for example, Hochul endorsed a proposal that restored some judicial discretion in setting bail — but not doing away with bail reform altogether.

“Democrats have a case to make,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala lamented in a recent interview with CNN host Michael Smerconish, singling out Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Rep. Val Demings, the former Orlando police chief and now a Senate candidate in Florida, as two Democrats who have spoken substantively to public safety concerns without sounding like activists or academics.

“Just because Republicans want to run on it doesn’t mean the Democrats should be silent,” Begala said. “I think we can take that issue away from them.”

But by the time many national Democrats realized that crime was emerging as an electoral problem, it may have been too late.

The lingering toll of ‘defund the police’

A protester against police brutality and racism
A protester against police brutality and racism, Aug. 24, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

Rep. Abigail Spanberger was blunt. In a call with fellow Democrats after the 2020 election — which saw Republicans make gains in both chambers of Congress, even as they lost the White House — the moderate Democrat from a swing Virginia district lashed out at progressives who had called for defunding the police, bluntly telling them that Democrats would “get f***ing torn apart in 2022.”

Last summer’s recall of progressive San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin, which followed the defeat of a Minneapolis measure that would have replaced the police department, was seen as a further warning sign that Democrats needed to find new approaches to public safety. San Francisco’s new district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, has reversed many of the progressive approaches that made Boudin terminally unpopular.

“They’ve created a mess. The pendulum is swinging back to center,” former New York police commissioner Bill Bratton told Yahoo News in June, as the issue of crime was starting to emerge as a potential midterm issue.

Progressives discounted the significance of the results in San Francisco and Minneapolis, arguing that neither city was representative of the national electorate.

William Bratton
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton in 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Failing to more deeply consider those results could have been a major miscalculation. Many Democrats continued to avoid talking about crime. Finally forced to do so, they vowed to address the issue of illegal guns, as Biden repeatedly has done. But while the profusion of firearms doubtlessly presents a public safety problem, vows of stricter gun control do not adequately address the anxiety about crime, law enforcement officials say.

A recent poll conducted jointly by Yahoo News and YouGov found that “crime is exerting a stronger pull on many voters than that number would suggest.” Though inflation was the top concern for respondents, 89% deemed the issue of crime “very” or “somewhat” important, suggesting that if it wasn’t the top worry for voters, it was a worry most voters nevertheless shared.

Asked who was to blame, 29% of respondents pointed to Democrats — and only 10% pointed to Republicans, suggesting that messaging on overly permissive Republican gun policies were not having the intended effect.

Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has arrived at a similar conclusion, which he summarized in a sharply worded and widely shared article in the American Prospect, a liberal magazine. “The Democrats had so little credibility on crime that any message I tested this year against the Republicans ended up losing us votes, even messages that voters previously liked,” Greenberg wrote of his own polling. “With Democrats so out of touch on crime and the police, just discussing crime cost Democrats.”

Police gather at the scene of a shooting
Police at the scene of a shooting where an officer was shot in his patrol car in Brooklyn, N.Y., June 23. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Begala, the Democratic strategist, also believes that rhetoric about “defunding the police” continues to take its toll. “I’ve never seen a slogan do more damage,” he told Smerconish of CNN.

For many Democrats, however, a law and order message does not come naturally.

Sensing that unease, Republicans have pressed the point, even though Biden himself has loudly renounced the “defund” message.

“Few believed Joe Biden when he said he opposed ‘defund’ because the loudest voices in his party who dominate the conversation never backed away from it,” Republican strategist Colin Reed told Yahoo News. “It’s not just partisan Republicans who view Biden as a convenient and empty vessel for the far left.”

There are, to be sure, progressive elements within the Biden administration that espouse views divergent from the president’s. Last year, for example, the White House published a National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality that calls for “reducing the number of people incarcerated in the United States,” “increasing federal oversight and accountability for police departments and prosecutors’ offices to address systemic misconduct,” and ending cash bail. The president has rarely, if ever, mentioned any of those proposals.

Joe Biden
President Biden at a rally in support of New York incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul and other state Democrats, Nov. 6, in Yonkers, N.Y. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

If a longstanding proponent of public safety like Biden — a major contributor to the 1994 crime bill, anathema to today’s progressives — is having trouble breaking through, the challenge is even more pronounced with the newer class of Democrats in swing states across the country. In Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, the Democratic lieutenant governor, is in a close race against Dr.Mehmet Oz, a Republican, for a key U.S. Senate seat. Fetterman is a gun owner, but he also supports reducing prison time for people convicted of some crimes.

Fetterman has tried to counter the GOP’s nonstop crime messaging with his own advertisement on the topic. In the ad, Montgomery County sheriff Sean Kilkenny defended Fetterman’s record: “I’m sick of Oz talking about John Fetterman and crime. Here’s the truth. John gave a second chance to those who deserved it. Nonviolent offenders, marijuana users. He voted with law enforcement experts nearly 90% of the time,” he said. Still, attacks from the Oz campaign appear to have resonated, and the lead Fetterman enjoyed for much of the summer is gone.

John Fetterman
Lt. Gov. of Pennsylvania and Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The crime problem for Democrats extends across the country. In Oregon, a Republican could win the gubernatorial mansion that has been in Democratic control since 1987. After an especially bloody stretch in Portland, the state’s largest city, Democratic candidate Tina Kotek called the violence “unacceptable” and, in a common party-line refrain, promised to “fight to get illegal guns off our streets.”

Voters appear skeptical of her promises; improbably, her Republican challenger Christine Drazan has a chance in this left-leaning state (an independent is also in the race). Portland set a record for murders last year, and homeless encampments are a frequent sight on city streets. “If you want to commit a crime, then right now is a really good time to do it,” a coffee shop owner there told the Washington Post last month. “There is no accountability.”

The problem of policing

Police stand guard during a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd, in Anaheim, Calif.
Police stand guard during a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd, in Anaheim, Calif. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

While the racial justice protests of 2020 proved a watershed moment for the criminal justice movement, policing had been embattled for much of the proceeding decade, when high-profile, police-involved killings of Black boys and men — Eric Garner on Staten Island; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Philando Castile in Minneapolis; Freddie Gray in Baltimore — gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Justice Department imposed more than a dozen consent decrees on police departments across the country, mandating federal oversight of departments that had operated for generations without outside scrutiny. Obama also convened a task force on policing, which compiled a report on how to reform the practice of law enforcement. Among its top aims was to “change the culture of policing.”

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in the final two years of the Obama presidency, 34 states (and Washington, D.C.) passed 79 separate police reform laws, mandating body cameras, banning chokeholds and more explicitly prohibiting racial profiling.

During the summer of 2020, sentiments became more polarized than ever. As some on the left called for doing away with law enforcement altogether, Trump warned on Twitter that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a message with unambiguously racist undertones.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta.
A Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta, May 29, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Since then, police budgets have only increased — but budgets are only a part of the story. The profession of law enforcement plunged into an identity crisis, one that seemed to demand, with increasing urgency, a fundamental reconsideration of policing and its role in society. Officers have been retiring at record rates, and many departments are having trouble hiring, leading them to lower standards for job applicants, an obviously counterproductive development at a time when cops have been enjoined to show greater professionalism.

The retirement surge has “not only created a vacuum in institutional knowledge,” Meyers says, “but also removed valuable relationships between departments and confidential informants, community members and vulnerable youth, which are forged through individual relationships with trusted officers. These will take many, many years to rebuild.”

And support for reform — and reformers — appears to have cooled. The attorney general of Minnesota, Keith Ellison, successfully prosecuted Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, sending the disgraced officer to prison, where he will serve a 20-year sentence. He also backed the failed Minneapolis measure to do away with the police department. Now he is fending off a spirited challenge from Jim Schultz, a Harvard-trained attorney who has never run for elected office before.

One advertisement by the Schultz campaign denounced by some as racist, Ellison — who is Black — is described as “the criminal’s choice for attorney general.”

‘We’re talking about justice’

Damik Wright, center, brother of Daunte Wright who was shot and killed by a police officer, at a demonstration in Minneapolis, April 19, 2021
Damik Wright, center, brother of Daunte Wright who was shot and killed by a police officer, at a demonstration in Minneapolis, April 19, 2021. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

The criminal justice reform movement was cultural before it was political, powered by books like Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which argued that the mass incarceration of young Black men — often under the auspices of the so-called war on drugs — amounted to a new form of segregation, one that destroyed lives and disrupted communities.

Krasner, the perennially embattled but resilient district attorney of Philadelphia, would call Alexander’s book as inspiration for his own decision to seek elected office. His election in 2017 inspired a movement of progressive prosecutors, all of whom broadly shared his view that police departments, criminal courts and jails formed a nexus of racist policies that needed to be undone.

The progressive prosecutor saw victories across the country, helping elect Rachael Rollins in Boston, Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascón in Los Angeles. At a time when Trump was pulling the national discourse to the right, they pulled in the other direction. “Our nation is going through a reckoning, and what happened in my election may one day be listed as a consequence of that,” Gascón’s defeated opponent Jackie Lacey conceded.

Almost as important to criminal justice reformers as “The New Jim Crow” was a 2014 article in the New Yorker about the tragic plight of Kalief Browder, a young man who was arrested in the Bronx in 2009 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He would eventually spend an outrageous three years at Rikers prison awaiting trial, with much of that time served in solitary confinement. Released in 2013, Browder took his own life in 2015.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Browder became the haunting face of bail reform, the movement to prevent judges from conditioning pretrial release on a payment that many indigent defendants could not afford. Like Browder, they would be relegated to months or even years of pretrial detention, languishing in frequently horrific conditions while wealthier defendants who could afford to post bail waited for their day in court at home.

California became the first state to end cash bail in 2018, and New York followed the following year, making it exceptionally difficult for judges to set bail for nonviolent crimes. Law enforcement groups objected to the lack of discretion, but progressives had clout in the state Legislature and passed their version of the bill.

As one Democrat in the state Senate put it, “I know change is scary, change is hard.” Change was also necessary, she argued. “We are talking about justice.”

The problem for Democrats has been how to talk about justice and safety at the same time. Only a few have chosen, like Spanberger of Virginia, to lambaste their own party for overly progressive rhetoric.

Perhaps the most prominent law-and-order Democrat in the country is New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer who had battled his own department on issues of racial discrimination. He emerged as the unlikely victor of a crowded Democratic primary by speaking, much as Zeldin has, to New Yorkers’ concerns with unignorable quality-of-life issues like homeless encampments.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams
New York City Mayor Eric Adams. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Adams has sought changes to the city’s bail law so that judges could keep violent offenders or troubled individuals off the streets. He went to Albany, pleading for bail reform to be undone, and came away with only partial success, earning the enmity of progressive lawmakers in the process. “It’s sad Mayor Adams has joined the ranks of right wingers who are so grossly demagoguing this issue,” State Sen. Mike Gianaris lamented.

By this time, Hochul had easily fended off a progressive primary challenger, New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams. Zeldin, a Trump supporter from Long Island, did not seem like he would pose much of a problem for the incumbent governor in the general election. Hochul only partially endorsed Adams’s efforts, not wanting to alienate Albany progressives whose support she would need once her first full term as governor began.

When the Supreme Court allowed states to ban abortion outright, Hochul’s prospects appeared to only brighten. The first woman to serve as the state’s governor, she tried to harness outrage over access to abortion, which had been legal in New York for half a century. One of her campaign advertisements charged that Zeldin “has supported abortion bans so cruel toward women they include no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother.”

In keeping with messaging emanating from the White House, she also tied Zeldin to the Jan. 6 attack, slamming the Long Islander for voting against the election’s certification and for holding a fundraiser with Trump in September.

Congressman Lee Zeldin, center
Zeldin, Republican candidate for governor of New York,campaigns in the Bronx on Monday. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

When the two met for their only debate, Zeldin stuck to his message: that Hochul was making New Yorkers less safe by endorsing progressive policies. She answered with a point about illegal guns, for which Zeldin appeared prepared.

“Unfortunately, Kathy Hochul believes the only crimes that are being committed are these crimes with guns. You’ve got people who are afraid of being pushed in front of oncoming subway cars. They’re being stabbed, they’re being beaten to death with hammers,” he said.

Hochul is still favored to win, but only in a much closer race than any Democrat had expected. And even if she does, Democrats will have to contend with a narrative on public safety in which they are cast as ineffectual and effete — a narrative that, unless reversed, will almost certainly reappear in future elections.

On Thursday morning, a tourist from Illinois on an early morning jog on a popular path along the Hudson River was raped by an assailant who had previously attacked other women in Manhattan. The suspect was arrested later in the day as he was apparently trying to leave Manhattan on a bus. He had been arrested 25 times previously, according to news reports.

The attack horrified New Yorkers — not to mention female runners already uneasy after the murder of Eliza Fletcher, a 34-year-old Memphis resident who was abducted and killed in September while on an early-morning run.

Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The following day, Hochul appeared on MSNBC, where she was interviewed by anchor Stephanie Ruhle and confronted about the public safety issue.

“Here’s the problem: We don’t feel safe. ... I walk into my pharmacy, and everything is on lockdown because of shoplifters. I’m not going in the subway,” Ruhle said. “People don't feel safe in this town. So you may have done these things, but right now we’re not feeling good. We’re worried we could be San Francisco.”

Hochul touted a decrease in homicides before offering what may not have been an especially reassuring reassurance: “We’ll never be San Francisco.”