By James Oliphant and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s meeting with New York Mayor Eric Adams on Thursday to discuss combating escalating gun crime signals Democrats want to send a message that they will not cede the issue of public safety to Republicans this election year.
Republicans contend that a pandemic-era spike in homicides and gun crimes in urban areas across the nation is tied to Democratic backing for the “defund the police” movement that arose out of the racial justice protests of 2020 – even though many Democrats, including Biden, have never supported slashing police funds.
The sharp rise in gun deaths over the last two years has put pressure on Democratic mayors of large cities to instead boost police funding and hire more officers, moves sometimes at odds with the progressive arm of the party’s push for policing reforms.
With U.S. voters ranking crime among their top concerns and support for Biden eroding in the suburbs, a Biden adviser and several Democratic strategists said the president’s decision to visit the New York Police Department headquarters with Adams offers a chance for Biden to refashion the political narrative around Democrats and crime ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.
“Democrats at large and the president are frustrated that we continue to get tagged on this ‘defund the police’ nonsense that the large part of the Democratic Party does not agree with,” said Mark Riddle, executive director of Future Majority, a moderate Democratic research firm.
The Biden political adviser, who asked not to be named, said the Biden administration will argue that lax gun laws and enforcement favored by Republicans are helping drive the rise in crime and making policing more dangerous.
Will O’Grady, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said, “Biden and Democrats have failed on crime,” pointing to spikes in homicides in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and Oakland. “Biden’s visit to New York is too little too late.”
Biden arrives in New York as a rash of violence has shaken America’s most populous city, where memories of rampant crime through the 1970s to 1990s remain strong.
The city has been roiled in recent weeks by shootings of police officers. Homicides in 2021 rose 3% over 2020 and a massive 53% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019, though the numbers remain lower than in the early 1990s.
Adams, a former New York police captain, was elected as mayor https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/democrat-eric-adams-wins-new-york-city-mayoral-election-2021-11-03 last year over more left-leaning Democrats with a promise to reform the police department and get tough on crime.
Since taking office in January, Adams has riled progressives by pledging to roll back some criminal justice reforms enacted by his predecessor Bill de Blasio. He seeks to give judges more power to detain suspects before trial, increase the use of solitary confinement in jails and re-activate a special anti-crime NYPD unit that was disbanded after being accused of overly aggressive tactics.
He also has pledged to add more cops to the streets to combat rising gun violence. He has asked for the federal government for help in stemming the flow of weapons into the city and for Congress to pass measures banning assault weapons and making gun trafficking a federal offense.
Some progressives view Biden’s embrace of Adams with alarm.
“It’s a little bit disappointing,” said Stanley Fritz, political director for Citizen Action of New York, a liberal advocacy group. “I’m worried about the message.”
Fritz said he hopes Biden presses Adams for a more wide-ranging approach to combating crime by attacking poverty and homelessness and increasing mental health services.
“Hiring more cops and giving them more money is not going to solve the problem,” Fritz said. “I want to believe they are going to do the right thing, but I am not very confident.”
In the 2020 election, Biden explicitly rejected calls by progressives to divert funding for police departments to social services, while assuring them that he supported police-reform measures.
In office, he has advocated for more spending on both police and preventative measures. “We shouldn’t be cutting funding for police departments,” Biden told the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month. “I proposed increasing funding.”
Experts have attributed the surge in homicides over the last two years to the COVID-19 pandemic, which emptied downtowns, shredded the economy and disrupted social services, along with easy access to illicit firearms and a shift in policing strategies following the 2020 racial justice protests.
In the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted Jan. 26-27, both Democrats and Republicans listed crime fourth among their top issues of concern, behind the economy, public health and healthcare.
Republican Glenn Youngkin made rising crime an issue during his successful campaign against Democrat Terry McAuliffe last November in the Virginia governor’s race, and it became one of a host of concerns that led some suburban voters who had backed Biden to swing to Youngkin.
More suburban voters have disapproved of Biden’s performance since last summer than approved, with the recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showing his support with the key voting bloc at 48%.
“Democrats are admittedly very concerned about the suburbs getting away from them,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “It’s not surprising that the president is going to start signaling issues he knows are going to play well in those communities.”
Biden likely would not have done such an event during his presidential campaign, Payne said, given that he was trying appease both moderates and liberals in the party in the run-up to the election. “It shows how the politics have changed.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)