Democratic cries to 'defund police' fade in U.S. mayoral races as crime surges

·5-min read
FILE PHOTO: Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore speaks about the last week's cyberattack on city computers in Atlanta

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - Felicia Moore, Atlanta's city council president, vows to hire 250 police officers to help combat her city's rising crime rate if she is elected mayor next week. Her most prominent Democratic rival, former Mayor Kasim Reed, wants to go even further, putting 750 more officers on the streets.

Public safety is at the forefront in dozens of major U.S. cities poised to elect mayors on Tuesday. However, a year after "defund the police" became a rallying cry at protests against racism and police brutality, Democratic candidates from Atlanta to Minneapolis are eschewing proposals to reduce police funding even as they emphasize the need for reform.

With most urban areas deeply Democratic, the campaigns provide a preview of how Democrats may seek to bridge the gaps between liberals who support policing overhauls and moderates who worry Republicans will weaponize the issue in next year's congressional elections.

Republicans effectively labeled some Democrats as police "defunders" during the 2020 elections, even though most mainstream candidates - including President Joe Biden - never embraced the movement pushed by party progressives.

Democrats want to avoid similar pitfalls in 2021 as crime continues to surge. Last month, the FBI reported murders rose nearly 30% in 2020, while violent crime overall went up for the first time in four years.

That trend has not abated in cities like Atlanta, where homicides have risen more than 60% since 2019.

A Pew Research Center poll released this week found 47% of Americans want to see police spending increase, up from 31% in June 2020. Only 15% said funding should be reduced, down from 25% last year.

Polls show Black voters - who are more likely to be victims of crime and live in neighborhoods with high crime rates - are particularly opposed to cutting funding.

"Communities that tend to be Black and brown, that tend to be less affluent, actually want police," said Tammy Greer, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. "The pendulum was always going to shift back."

An early signal came in New York, where former police officer Eric Adams won the Democratic mayoral nomination in June over several progressive rivals after positioning himself as a moderate who favored more aggressive policing.

Even candidates who still support redirecting funds from policing to other priorities, such as public housing and social work, have curbed their language to avoid alienating residents fearful for their safety.

In Buffalo, New York, India Walton joined protesters last year as they chanted anti-police slogans after a city officer was videotaped shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground.

But as a mayoral candidate, Walton has eschewed "defund" language and vowed not to lay off a single officer, even as she calls for cutting $7.5 million from the police budget as well as reforms such as relying on civilian personnel to handle mental health calls.

"In her capacity as an activist, during the uprisings last summer, she was really speaking from a place of resistance to injustice," campaign spokesperson Jesse Myerson said. "Obviously, that's a very different posture than the sort of cooler-headed, more intellectually studied posture of a candidate for office."

This summer, Walton, a democratic socialist, pulled off a shocking upset in the Democratic primary, beating four-term incumbent Byron Brown. Brown, who has since mounted a write-in campaign, has in ads accused Walton of wanting to "defund" the police.

BACKLASH TO 'DEFUND' MOVEMENT

In Boston, Annissa Essaibi George, a city council member running for mayor, has similarly attacked the race's leading candidate, Michelle Wu, as planning to "defund" the police. Wu rejects the charge as false.

Wu was among several council members who called for a 10% cut to the police budget last year. Her mayoral campaign, however, has not promoted a specific figure, instead pushing changes such as using civilians to respond to emergency calls for mentally disturbed or homeless people.

"Michelle has always said that we need to invest more in the intersection of public health and public safety," said campaign spokesperson Sarah Anders. "Michelle thinks that it's less about pinpointing any one number and more about the reforms that we need."

In Seattle, one of the country's most liberal cities, mayoral candidate and city council President Lorena Gonzalez supported calls last year to halve the police budget and invest the money in social programs.

Polls show her trailing Bruce Harrell, a former council president and fellow Democrat who has advocated hiring more officers alongside a number of police reforms.

"If this is a year ago, in the face of a dramatic few months in mid-2020, I think this would be a very different story," said Zachary Wood, a public affairs professor at Seattle University.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd's murder by a white police officer prompted last year's widespread demonstrations, voters will decide whether to approve a ballot measure replacing the police department with a new public safety agency.

Mayor Jacob Frey, who is seeking reelection, opposes the proposal. He says the city needs to hire more police to replenish an under-staffed department.

"I have never supported defunding or abolishing the police," he said at a debate this week.

All of the leading candidates in Atlanta's mayoral race support more officers to combat crime, while also calling for reforms to ensure racial equity.

Moore, who like Reed is a Democrat in the nonpartisan race, backs the creation of civilian first responders to handle non-violent emergency calls, among other reforms. But the city also needs enough officers to keep neighborhoods safe, she said.

"Defunding the police doesn't get us anywhere," she said.

The race has disappointed left-wing activists like Kelsea Bond, co-chair of the Atlanta chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

"There really was this glimmer of hope last year," Bond said. "The city has only expanded policing and incarceration since last year, and a lot of it has been backlash to the 'defund the police' movement."

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)

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