Shootings and subway attacks put crime at center of NYC mayor’s race

By Katie Glueck and Jeffery C. Mays

A shooting in Times Square, a spike in gun violence and a spate of high-profile attacks on subway riders have pushed concerns over crime and public safety to the forefront of the New York City mayor’s race, altering the trajectory of the contest as the June 22 primary approaches.

A year after the rise of the “defund the police” movement amid an outcry over racial injustice, the primary will offer one of the first tests of where Democratic voters stand as the country emerges from the pandemic but confronts a rise in gun violence in major cities like New York.

The shooting on Saturday in Times Square, the heart of tourism and transit in New York City, injured three bystanders, including a 4-year-old girl, a woman from New Jersey and a Rhode Island tourist who had been hoping to visit the Statue of Liberty.

Two of the leading mayoral candidates rushed to the scene.

Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate, held a Sunday morning news conference where he declared that “nothing works in our city without public safety, and for public safety, we need the police.” Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, went to Times Square twice: on Saturday, hours after the shooting, and again the next afternoon.

On Monday, Raymond J. McGuire appeared there as well, walking a careful line between calling for stronger policing and discussing how, “as a 6-foot-4, 200-pound Black man in America,” he understands how the police can violate civil rights.

The rising concerns over crime have given those candidates a fresh opening to make forceful cases for public safety and the role it plays in New York’s recovery from the pandemic.

The moment is also testing whether the most left-wing candidates in the race, whose far-reaching proposals to rein in the power of the New York Police Department reflected widespread protests over racial injustice last year, will resonate in the same way when the city may be at a different kind of inflection point.

As of May 2, 132 people have been killed compared with 113 this same time last year, a 17% increase, according to Police Department statistics. There have been 416 shooting incidents compared with 227 this time last year, an 83% increase.

In one sign of just how central matters of public safety are becoming in the race, at least three candidates plan to discuss the issue Tuesday.

Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, is slated to unveil her policing plan; the former federal housing secretary, Shaun Donovan, is expected in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, which has been hit especially hard by gun violence over the last year, to discuss “his plans to eliminate the out-of-state gun pipeline”; and Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner, intends to roll out a gun-violence-prevention proposal.

“We’re in a very precarious position,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader. “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.”

Sharpton said he intended to press mayoral candidates on issues of overpolicing and gun violence at a forum in coming weeks.

More than any other candidate in the race, Adams offers the clearest test of the potency of a message centered on public safety, which he describes as the “prerequisite” to prosperity.

Adams, a former police officer who has pushed for reforms within the system and says he has been a victim of police brutality himself, has been vocal for weeks about the rise in gun violence. On Monday, he was talking about those issues again, standing outside a Manhattan subway station where a woman was recently assaulted.

“This city is out of control,” Adams said. “That’s what has changed in this mayoral race: People are finally hearing me. We don’t have to live like this.”

He and other Democratic candidates contend that there is no conflict between urging a robust police response to crime, and insisting on changes to regulate police misconduct and violence.

Even before the Times Square shooting, there were mounting signs that public safety was intensifying as a concern in New York: a Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos poll released late last month found that “crime or violence” was a major concern for New York Democrats, second to the coronavirus.

The instances of violent crime are nowhere near the sky-high numbers of earlier eras in New York, and while shootings and homicides are up, other crimes have been down this spring.

Nonetheless, other elected officials also reached for comparisons to the city’s so-called bad old days even as they stressed that they did not believe the current moment was equivalent.

“Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, people that lived here, including myself, you know, we witnessed some pretty nasty stuff,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y. “We don’t want to slip back to that. So I think that that’s going to be a major issue with this year’s mayoral race.” Espaillat is currently neutral after pulling his endorsement from the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, following an allegation of sexual misconduct, which Stringer denies.

Diana Ayala, a councilwoman representing East Harlem and the Bronx who also rescinded her support of Stringer, said the response from the mayoral candidates to addressing crime would determine if she endorsed anyone else for mayor.

“Citywide, people are alarmed at the numbers of shootings but quite frankly, those numbers have been pretty consistent in my district for the last 3 1/2 years,” Ayala said. “Every summer, even as we speak, we are planning for what’s to come.”

Many Democrats have also pointed out that Times Square already has a significant police presence, noting that was not enough to prevent a shooting.

McGuire called for a reexamination of bail reform laws in a way that doesn’t violate people’s civil rights.

“There’s a difference between someone being thrown into jail for stealing a bag of potato chips and someone who has repeat arrests for gun possession,” he said. “People arrested in possession of a loaded, illegal firearm cannot be detained by breakfast and walk out of the courthouse and be home by dinner.”

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