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Policing Politics Takes Over the New York City Mayoral Race

Last Saturday, two brothers selling CDs in Times Square got into an argument. One pulled out a gun and started shooting. He missed his brother but hit three passersby: a four-year-old girl in a stroller, a woman in town from New Jersey, and another woman, from Rhode Island. By luck alone, all three survived. The incident came amid recent spikes in shootings, racist attacks on people of Asian descent, and violence in the city’s subways. Police rushed to the scene. Mayoral candidates weren’t far behind.

“The truth is that New York City cannot afford to defund the police,” Andrew Yang, one of the race’s two front-runners, told reporters during a visit to Times Square on Sunday. Eric Adams, the other front-runner, according to the polls, also showed up. An ex-cop turned Brooklyn borough president, Adams called Yang out by name, accusing him of arriving late to the issue. “You know what, Andrew, these shootings have been happening blocks from my house for years, and blocks from the house of poorer New Yorkers for years,” Adams said. “Shame on you for not realizing that.”

The response was more muted from the mayoral candidates who are trying to claim the title of progressive champion. Maya Wiley, a civil-rights attorney and former City Hall lawyer, spoke to reporters in Brooklyn about the importance of mental-health resources and summer youth-employment programs. Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive and the only candidate who openly supports the “Defund the Police” movement, tweeted that the shooting was “a painful reminder that we need bigger solutions than the police.”

For months, New York City’s Democratic mayoral-primary race—which will all but determine the next leader of the most populous city in the country—was a quiet affair, proceeding in the shadow of a pandemic, a Presidential election, the storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the scandals that have engulfed Governor Andrew Cuomo. Eight major candidates established themselves early on, and spent much of the winter honing policy details during scores of Zoom events with issue groups. Just a few months ago, most of the field was making overtures to activists and the insurgent left wing of the Democratic Party on a range of issues, including policing. Not anymore. The political response to the Times Square shooting typified a dynamic that has recently developed: Yang and Adams have drawn the most attention to themselves when they have broken most starkly with the left.

On Thursday night, the candidates participated in yet another Zoom, but with higher stakes: it was the first official debate of the campaign. All you needed was a stopwatch to see the shape of the race. In two hours, no time was spent debating public health, though a pandemic, which is not over, just consumed a year of the city’s history; nor climate change, though the city has done little since Hurricane Sandy to protect itself from sea and storm; nor Cuomo, though Bill de Blasio’s two terms in office were warped by his dysfunctional relationship with the Governor. A full third of the debate was taken up by policing. “Public safety” was the first issue put to the candidates by the moderator, Errol Louis. Yang and Adams came ready to address it in their opening statements. “The first thing I’d do as mayor is go to our police force and say that your city needs you,” Yang said. “We need to evolve to a twenty-first-century form of policing.” Early on, Adams said, “I’m happy, after the Times Square shooting, that these other candidates, for the most part, have joined me in dealing with this violence.”

Of course, if a New York City mayoral race didn’t turn on the issues of policing and public safety, it would be something of a historical outlier. Eight years ago, it was a candidate framing these issues from the left who won over voters: de Blasio got to City Hall in part by pledging to end stop-and-frisk, the tactic that galvanized public opposition to racist over-policing. But, for criminal-justice-reform activists, de Blasio has been worse than a failure—he has been a disappointment. In this year’s race, the most progressive candidates seem still to be searching for a way to talk about the fraught relationships with both the police and the public which de Blasio is leaving in his wake. On Thursday, the focus on the shootings obscured important policing and reform issues that have been playing out under de Blasio for years: the candidates barely mentioned, for instance, the future of Rikers Island, the city’s massive, dysfunctional jail complex.

Scott Stringer, the city comptroller whose alliance with left-wing Democrats came undone after a woman accused him of having groped her two decades ago, tried at one point to warn against going back to “Giuliani-style policing that impacted Black and brown children.” Kathryn Garcia, who was coming into the debate on the high of having just received the endorsement of the Times editorial board, talked about instilling “a new culture, where P.D. are guardians rather than warriors against their communities.” The most memorable and productive exchange of the night came when Wiley pressed Adams, who has criticized the abuse of stop-and-frisk while insisting that it can be a useful policing tactic if used properly, to explain his position. “How can New Yorkers trust you to protect us and to keep us safe from police misconduct?” Wiley asked Adams. Adams was dismissive. “Every time you raise that question, it really just shows your failure of understanding law enforcement,” he responded.

Less than a year since Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, in Minneapolis, sparking a summer of historic unrest and nationwide calls for police reform, polling shows that many New Yorkers still support transferring resources and responsibilities from the N.Y.P.D. to other social programs and agencies. But, with the spectre of crime suddenly top of mind for many voters, the language of “defund” has been deemed a political liability. The candidates in the race most eager to dump the defund language are the ones sitting atop the polls. One question going into the final month is whether Wiley or Morales has it in them to offer a contrasting case about their positions on policing that draws an audience of its own. “We’re in a very precarious position,” Al Sharpton, the civil-rights leader, told the Times recently. “People are afraid of the cops and the robbers. We have both of them that we’ve got to deal with. And anyone that cannot come up with a comprehensive plan that threads the needle of both should not be running for mayor.”





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