The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fight crime or reform policing? As homicides spike, mayors nationwide insist they can do both.

City leaders are trying to navigate between demands for social justice and fears about public safety

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, center, and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, right, stand together Jan. 11, 2021, ahead of a funeral for Baltimore Police Officer Keona Holley, who was ambushed while sitting in her patrol car. (Scott Serio/AFP/Getty Images)

It was the summer of 2020, and the streets of American cities pulsed with demands to defund the police. In Baltimore, the City Council president — a young activist turned politician, Brandon Scott — led the charge to cut tens of millions of dollars from the department’s budget, arguing it was past time to “reinvest in other areas and reimagine what public safety is.”

Nearly two years later, Scott is the city’s mayor. But the police budget during his tenure has gone up, not down, in the face of an onslaught of homicides that shows no signs of relenting. And Scott is adamant that the city doesn’t have to choose: It can fight violent crime while reforming law enforcement.

“This is not an either-or approach,” Scott said. “It has to be both-and.”

Across the country, mayors who aligned themselves with racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer have shifted their emphasis to neighborhoods that reverberate with the sound of gunfire day and night. In major cities, leaders — most of them Democrats — are advancing plans to add police officers, target high-crime areas and roll back reforms that they say have aided criminals without enhancing equity.

But they are pointedly not advocating for a return to the heavy-handed tactics of the 1980s and 1990s when, with crime peaking, city leaders and other officials competed over who could do the most to burnish no-tolerance, lock-them-up-at-all-costs credentials. Rather, they are attempting a delicate balance that weighs the demands of social justice along with the fears of citizens rattled by violent crime.

In city after city, that balancing act is being put to the test.

Baltimore’s Scott (D), for instance, has come under intense criticism from liberal activists disappointed that he hasn’t done more to transform the city’s police department, as well as from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has called the mayor’s continued talk of police budget reductions “crazy.” The city just endured its highest January homicide total on record, and has logged seven straight years with 300 or more killings.

In Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey (D) has been the target of demonstrations after police killed 22-year-old Amir Locke during a “no-knock” raid last week, despite the mayor’s claim to have banned such operations. “Frey lied, Amir died,” read one sign at a weekend protest in Minneapolis that drew more than 1,000 people.

And in New York — perhaps the highest-profile example of efforts to navigate a middle course — Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, both Democrats, have offered starkly different visions of how authorities should approach criminal justice issues. Bragg, who faced intense criticism for a prosecution policy that took a more lenient approach to certain crimes, last week reversed course in some areas in response to the furor.

“Mayors and police chiefs are between a rock and a hard place,” said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a University of Baltimore criminologist. Their residents want equity in policing, while also feeling exasperated that leaders “are not doing enough to decrease violent crime. They’re fed up.”

Ross said there are so many factors that determine whether crime rises or falls that mayors actually have limited control — a point on which they are keenly aware.

“Institutional racism is a major part of it. Poverty is a major part of it. Housing is a major part of it. It’s not just one thing,” said Ed Gainey (D), the new mayor of Pittsburgh. “People are looking for a magic wand. We don’t have a magic wand.”

But Gainey and other mayors said they do have resources that weren’t previously available. Federal pandemic relief, in particular, has made it easier for cities to not have to choose between their police departments and areas such as mental health spending and community investments that they say can help curb violence.

The money also allows them to experiment with new approaches.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell (D) won election last year on a pledge to grow the police force from its current size of fewer than 1,000 officers to as many as 1,400. But he also wants to create a new category of unarmed officer to handle crimes such as shoplifting, and to help dispel the image of “the macho gun-and-badge officer accosting a person of poverty.”

Such ideas may not fully satisfy either liberals or conservatives, Harrell acknowledged. But he says it’s the kind of balanced approach that most voters want.

“It gets loud on both ends of the spectrum,” Harrell said. “I have to be equally loud, if not louder, in the narratives I believe.”

Adams — a former police captain who has advocated for reform both from within and outside the New York Police Department — has been loudest of all in arguing that public safety and social justice aren’t mutually exclusive.

It’s a message that’s been eagerly embraced by President Biden, who visited Adams in New York last week to highlight the mayor’s crime-fighting plan — and to try to counter persistent Republican attacks that Democrats are responsible for the deterioration in public safety.

Deadly violence has risen sharply in New York in recent years, with killings increasing from just over 300 pre-pandemic to nearly 500 in 2021. That’s still well below the 2,200 murders recorded in 1990, but Adams has made reductions in violent crime the centerpiece of his mayoral agenda.

He laid out his plans not long after two police officers were fatally shot while responding to a domestic call in Harlem last month, among the seven officers shot in New York City so far this year. The mayor’s proposals include more officers on patrol, ramped-up efforts to detect guns being funneled into the city and — most controversially — “Neighborhood Safety Teams” targeting gun violence. The teams are a successor to plainclothes anti-crime units that were disbanded in 2020.

Officials will “avoid mistakes of the past,” Adams said in remarks announcing his plan. “These officers will be identifiable as NYPD. They will have body cameras. And they will have enhanced training and oversight.”

Christopher Ryan, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said bringing those units back to the streets with proper oversight is key to helping curb gun violence.

“They’re very good at patrolling in a covert way [and] are very good at knowing what is the intel of that neighborhood,” said Ryan, who is now a managing director at K2 Integrity, where he advises police departments.

But the revival of the units has been derided by reform advocates, with New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman saying they arise from a lineage that had come “to symbolize the worst of abusive, racist and deadly broken-windows policing.” Broken-windows policing refers to the theory that policing minor offenses could prevent instances of more serious crime. Critics contend it has disproportionately criminalized some populations without reducing the overall crime rate.

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The divisions between Adams and Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, over bail policies and other criminal justice issues also revealed fault lines.

Adams has called on the state government to undo policies imposed as part of a sweeping reform package two years ago that limited the circumstances under which judges can set bail. But Bragg, whose term also began last month, had pushed in the other direction. He issued a memo to his office’s roughly 500 attorneys last month that prohibited them from asking for bail on cases involving gun possession, as well as some assaults and robberies.

Bragg also laid out plans to not pursue charges for more minor offenses, including resisting arrest, trespassing and marijuana misdemeanors. The district attorney, a lifelong resident of Harlem, where shootings have become more and more routine, has said his top priority is tackling the city’s gun crisis and has argued that by declining to charge certain other offenses, more resources can be devoted to gun violence.

His memo, which was publicly released, drew immediate backlash from the police union and advocates for crime victims. Adams’s handpicked police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, told her officers she was “very concerned about the implications to your safety as police officers, the safety of the public and justice for the victims.”

Bragg retreated last week, apologizing for the “confusion” and clarifying that prosecutors have discretion to make decisions outside the blueprint he had announced.

Adams’s stance reflects the concerns of residents such as Kenneth Ma, a Chinatown business owner who said quality-of-life violations in the neighborhood were inviting violence — problems that he believes lenient bail policies had helped exacerbate.

“I think you have to first make sure that these people don’t come back out and harm the community first before you create these policies,” said Ma, 37, whose optical store has been targeted for thefts and has had its glass door and window smashed each of the past two years. “We’re running before we learn to walk.”

Ma’s experience may be one reason public opinion has shifted since Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis nearly two years ago, with surveys from the Pew Research Center finding a drop in the share of Americans who want less funding for police in their areas.

But voters have shown they want criminal justice and policing reforms, too. Last year, they beefed up police oversight in Cleveland and Albany, N.Y., scrapped no-knock warrants in Pittsburgh and, in surrounding Allegheny County, banned solitary confinement at the county jail.

Bragg, meanwhile, was the latest in a wave of prosecutors who campaigned on liberal, reform-minded platforms and have won in places including Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Some critics of liberal prosecutors have sought to link their policies to more crime and violence, but Ronald Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University, said the evidence is lacking.

“Homicide rates are up everywhere,” Wright said. “They’re up in jurisdictions that have very traditional prosecutors. They’re up in jurisdictions that have more progressive prosecutors.”

Experts say the real reasons for the violent crime spike vary but probably include a combination of the pandemic, frayed community-police relations and a flood of guns.

While the public debate and officials’ stances on policing and safety have shifted in recent years, some things remain stubbornly consistent. Police across the country have fatally shot more than 1,000 people in each of the last two years, according to a Washington Post database, a toll that remains steady despite the protests, calls for reform and ongoing pandemic.

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Minneapolis police added to the toll Feb. 2 when an officer shot and killed Locke. Body-camera footage shows Locke apparently asleep on a couch. An officer appears to bump the couch, and Locke, wrapped in a blanket, is seen attempting to rise while holding a gun pointed at the ground as SWAT team officers, executing a no-knock warrant, burst into the apartment. Three gunshots ring out. Police said Locke was not the subject of the warrant.

Frey immediately came under scrutiny for claiming to have banned no-knock warrants in the city. A closer look at the policy revisions he implemented in late 2020, after Floyd’s death, revealed that the language allowed police to continue using them. Last week, after Locke’s death, Frey again announced a moratorium — but in the fine print allowed the department to use them if officers deemed the situation an “imminent threat.”

Frey was reelected last year and claimed the victory validated his “both/and” approach to reform and public safety. “We need deep and structural change to policing in America. At the same time, we need police officers to make sure that they are working directly with community to keep us safe,” he proclaimed on election night. “All of these things are true.”

But the killing of Locke has only further inflamed intense debate in a city experiencing rising violent crime along with a surge of officer departures that has left the police department struggling to respond to 911 calls.

Minneapolis reported 96 homicides in 2021 — a number that tied a record in the 1990s, when the city was dubbed “Murderapolis.” The deaths include several young children on the city’s predominantly Black north side, where residents have complained about the lack of police.

Last month, Frey announced that he was accelerating police recruitment, with a goal to quickly hire around 200 new officers, though he has described the effort as a “heavy lift,” pointing to recruiting challenges felt nationwide.

The need to hire so many officers so quickly has raised concerns about the quality of officers who will be on the streets.

“Police officers need to get paid more and fired more. They need to get paid more so that we are incentivizing the best, most talented, community-oriented officers to sign up for what, yes, is a very, very hard job,” Frey said last month. “And we need to make sure that when those officers do not live up to the values that we have instilled and that we are insisting on, they are fired.”

Police unions nationwide have resisted such efforts.

Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said his union has pushed for reform and is willing to work with activists on areas of possible common ground, including a national use-of-force standard. “It’s not rocket science to see that there are people in law enforcement who don’t have the temperament to be in law enforcement,” he said.

Saggau said, however, his union would not endorse reforms that come “at the expense of making communities less safe.”

To Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter’s Los Angeles chapter, police officers themselves are often the source of insecurity — which is one reason she favors cutting their funding.

“I don’t know a Black person on this Earth who feels safer when a police cruiser pulls up behind them in traffic,” she said.

Scott, the Baltimore mayor, knows that fear, having grown up in the city’s rough-and-tumble Pimlico neighborhood where, he said, officers would “sit you down on the curb just for being human.”

The 37-year-old, who is Black, has also lost friends to gun violence — including one just last year, an anti-violence activist named Dante Barksdale. “He was like a brother to me,” Scott said.

Now his friend’s memory is an inspiration for Scott’s efforts to keep pushing for both reform and public safety. When critics assail his plans, “I can hear Dante in my ear, saying, ‘Hell no, Brandon. You got to go further,’” he said.

While the mayor hasn’t reduced the police budget, he has limited increases to the minimum required for cost-of-living adjustments. And he has directed new funding to programs he sees as alternatives to the police — including the “violence interruption” work of which Barksdale was a part. Investments from City Hall in addiction recovery, affordable housing and job training, he said, can be as effective as anything in reducing the homicide rate.

“People want constitutional policing at the same time they want community health programs,” he said. “We’re creating the complete ecosystem.”

Jacobs reported from New York City, and Bailey reported from Minneapolis. Vik Jolly in Los Angeles contributed to this report.