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In a setback for Black Lives Matter, mayoral campaigns shift to ‘law and order’

Across the country, local candidates are pitching themselves as advocates on safety and supporters of the police

New York police officers investigate the scene where a women was shot and killed in Brooklyn on Aug. 4. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News)

Mayoral candidates across the country are closing out their campaigns pledging to restore law and order, a major setback for racial justice protesters who only a year ago thought they had permanently reshaped the debate on policing in American cities.

As voters head to the polls Tuesday, local elections are dominated by discussions about safety and law enforcement amid a surge in violent crime. The tone of the debate, even in many liberal urban communities, highlights how major policing reforms have stalled.

From Buffalo to Seattle, Democratic politicians who once championed significant reductions or reallocations of police department budgets are backtracking. In other cities, including Cleveland, liberal candidates are being hammered over their stances on public safety.

Even in cities without a competitive mayor’s race, the question of how to get tough on crime and bolster public safety has emerged as a defining issue. In Miami Beach, for example, Mayor Dan Gelber (D) is campaigning for a controversial referendum that would ban the sale of alcohol at bars and nightclubs after 2 a.m., which the mayor says is needed to regain control of the city after a tumultuous year of unruly behavior and gun violence. Gelber is also exploring how Miami Beach can hire more police officers.

“My residents are saying ‘we need to crackdown’, or ‘we need to have zero tolerance,’ ” said Gelber, adding that his party has been hampered by public perceptions that it is soft on crime.

The shift in the political strategies among big-city politicians, many of whom are Democrats, comes as a new poll shows public support for traditional policing strategies has increased since last year, when the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and powered its “defund the police” slogan.

A Pew Research Center poll published Tuesday shows that 47 percent of Americans want to increase funding for police, compared to 15 percent who want to decrease funding. In June 2020, when the racial justice protests were at their peak, 31 percent of Americans wanted to increase funding, while 25 percent supported a decrease. Three-fourths of Black Americans, who form a decisive voting bloc in many mayoral contests, either support increasing or keeping spending on police the same, Pew found.

The shift in public opinion comes after large U.S. cities experienced a 30 percent jump in killings in 2020, the biggest one-year increase since the federal government began compiling national figures in the 1960s.

In many cities, the number of homicides continued to rise this year, though at a slower rate than in 2020. At the same time, many large police departments have seen a decline in the number of active officers, fueling residents’ sense of unease.

Ned Hill, an Ohio State University professor who studies urban politics, said the shift on police occurred quickly, forcing local politicians to recalibrate their public safety message. The tenor of the debate in many mayoral races moved even further in favor of police this fall, after Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain who campaigned on fighting crime, won the Democratic nomination for mayor in New York.

“Mayors aren’t stupid, and they understand if taxpaying residents of their city start leaving, as they did in the 1970s, the whole city is endangered,” said Hill, who teaches economics at Ohio State’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs. “But more importantly, they understand it’s the home-owning residents who turn out to vote in nonpresidential election years, and it’s those residents who feel most affected by crime.”

Mayoral candidates who only a few months ago were on the front lines of the police-reform movement have been moderating their positions ahead of elections.

In Buffalo, community activist India Walton is attempting Tuesday to become the country’s first socialist mayor in decades after she defeated the incumbent mayor, Byron Brown, in the June Democratic primary. Walton’s bid for public office grew out of the racial justice protests that swept the nation following Floyd’s murder, and she had been a fixture at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Before her campaign for mayor, Walton embraced calls to shift resources away from police. According to the Buffalo News, Walton used expletive-laden anti-police chants at a rally. Her affiliation with the Black Lives Matter movement has become fodder for Brown, who is mounting a write-in campaign.

On the campaign trail, Walton has largely stopped talking about cutting funding for police and instead stresses the need for accountability for police misconduct and a greater role for mental health professionals in responding to residents in distress.

Jesse Myerson, a spokesman for the Walton campaign, said Walton does not recall using profanity on the campaign trail last year. Myerson added Walton has shifted away from the “slogans of activists” during moments of “searing injustice” and is now focused on becoming an effective mayor.

“India has transitioned from one to the other, and that accounts for the change in rhetoric,” said Myerson, adding Walton still supports diverting $7.5 million of the Buffalo Police Department’s $86 million annual budget. “But what stays the same is her commitment to justice, and her determination that we have a society that fosters safety, health and accountability.”

A poll released Tuesday by WIVB-TV and Emerson College showed Brown holds a 17-point lead in the race.

In Seattle, a city that experienced a 73 percent increase in homicides last year, city council president and mayoral candidate M. Lorena González is also on the defensive over her past support for reducing police funding in that city by as much as 50 percent and diverting that money to social programs.

González’s chief opponent in the race, former council member Bruce Harrell, is hammering González for that stance, arguing homeowners and businesses are clamoring for safer streets in a city that has lost about 300 police officers in the last year.

“Make no mistake about it, I am not defunding the police,” Harrell charged in a debate on Thursday night. “My opponent has made it clearly a purpose-driven part [of her campaign] to defund the police.”

González responded by saying she still wants to “invest in community-based safety and non-law-enforcement systems” but will also “fully support hiring plans” to add more officers to the Seattle Police Department.

Several recent polls suggest Harrell now leads González.

Justin Hansford, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University, said big-city political dynamics this fall highlight how the Black Lives Matter movement has faded as a political force.

Hansford, a onetime Black Lives Matter activist, said the movement is suffering from its diffuse leadership structure, most notably that the movement never established a clear leader or political arm. As a result, Hansford said, it has been unable to fight back against its critics or organize itself politically, which has made it easier for Democratic leaders to distance themselves from the activists’ message.

“That lack of cohesion, what that does is, it means you cannot come up with a counter-strategy that everyone can agree on, and you can’t come up with a long-term strategy,” Hansford said. “We always knew there would be pushback to changing policing, but what is surprising is how quickly Democrats are back to a law-and-order narrative.”

Gunfire was heard as St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones was speaking during news conference Oct. 29 at an event focused on reducing violent crime. (Video: Reuters)

In some mayoral contests, candidates have been on the defensive for even publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement last year. In Park City, Utah, a liberal island in an otherwise conservative state, Mayor Andy Beerman has faced criticism during his reelection campaign for authorizing a “Black Lives Matter” mural on a city street last year, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Chanelle Helm, a leader of a Black Lives Matter chapter in Louisville, which does not hold a mayor’s race until next year, said organizers have always understood their campaign to “fundamentally change policing” would be a tough slog.

“Resting is a part of this, because it is a long-term battle,” Helm said. “You lose some battles. You win some battles. But you still have to rest, because you know the GOP is still going to organize. White supremacy is still going to organize, and centrist Democrats are still going to organize.”

Despite setbacks for the movement, Bruce Katz, director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, said the political environment in major cities still largely aligns with the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. He notes that many candidates couch their requests for more police officers with promises to also hold them accountable while investing in social and mental health programs to deter crime and arrests.

“Mayoral candidates are being compelled to respond to realities on the ground. But the response to those realities is going to be dramatically informed by what happened to George Floyd, and it will not be the response we would have seen in 2018 or 2019,” Katz said. “There will be a much more thoughtful, broader, comprehensive response.”

But one test of how voters balance these competing needs will come in Cleveland, where residents are voting both for a new mayor and on a referendum to fundamentally change oversight of city police.

Cleveland’s police department has been in turmoil since an officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 while Rice held a toy gun. A year later, the department entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department after it was determined that police engaged in pattern of excessive force.

In response to concerns about the department, voters are considering a ballot question that would create a civilian commission that could fire or discipline officers. Political analysts once expected the measure to pass handily.

But in recent weeks, the referendum has emerged as the main point of contention between the two candidates for mayors.

In a September primary, Justin Bibb, a Black 34-year-old nonprofit executive, was the top vote-getter after he rallied a diverse coalition of young and left-leaning voters to the polls. In Tuesday’s runoff election, however, Bibb finds himself locked in a tight race against City Council President Kevin Kelley, who is using public safety issues to rally older, more conservative voters behind his candidacy.

Kelley, 54, has been arguing that Issue 24 — and Bibb’s vocal support for it — will divert resources from city police after Cleveland saw 177 homicides last year, a pace that continues to accelerate this year. Kelley, who is White, has also argued an expansion of the board’s powers will prompt officers to leave the force.

“From everything we have seen, from polling to knocking on front doors, to any conversation we have had with people, crime and safety is the absolute number-one issue in every neighborhood in the city of Cleveland,” Kelley said. “We are already down almost 200 uniformed police officers, and we just cannot afford this risk” of enacting Issue 24.

In an interview, Bibb accused Kelley of “using Trump talking points” against him, a reference to President Donald Trump’s “law and order” campaign strategy last year.

“I will not run away from this narrative that you can’t have effective law enforcement while also focusing on police accountability and equal justice under the law,” Bibb said.

Still, Bibb concedes his task has become harder this year because many voters think Democrats want to “defund the police.”

“It was the worst label and the worst branding in American political history,” Bibb said. “It boxed many of us in because anytime we talk about police accountability or police reform, the other side says it is ‘defund the police’ and we don’t support police officers.”

“And when we [Democrats] overplayed our hands with defund the police, we are forced to go back to the other extreme,” Bibb added.

One city where the political whiplash has been especially intense is Atlanta, where 14 candidates are vying to replace Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D).

In the summer of 2020, following citywide protests after an Atlanta police officer shot a man in the back as he attempted to flee, many city leaders advocated for broad reforms to policing. The Atlanta City Council came within one vote of temporarily slashing its police budget by nearly a third.

Now, amid a sharp increase in homicides and carjackings, the issue of police reform is not even brought up on the campaign trail as the candidates instead discuss how to quickly hire more officers.

One leading candidate, former mayor Kasim Reed (D), is aligning himself with Atlanta’s police union, an unthinkable political decision just a year ago when the city rallied behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We have to support the women and the men of the police department,” Reed said while picking up the endorsement. “Because if we don’t, we are going to lose Atlanta.”

Joanna Slater contributed to this report.