Whoever succeeds Bill de Blasio as the mayor of New York City will face an interconnected crisis: Surging gun violence and an ongoing reckoning over what role police should play in reducing shootings.
With shootings up more than 68 percent compared to this time last year, some leading candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary are comparing today’s violence to that of the 1970s and 1980s, when New York City faced a murder epidemic. “I remember when the A Train was a rolling crime scene,” Scott Stringer, a leading candidate and the city’s comptroller, said in a June 10 debate. “We’re not going back to that when I’m mayor.” Another top contender, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, said at an earlier debate that she didn’t want her young adult children to have to relearn the tactics she used to stay safe in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s. “We have gone from a pandemic of COVID to an epidemic of gun violence,” she said.
Though higher than recent years, shootings and homicides in New York City are still nowhere near those historic highs. As Stringer has repeatedly pointed out, the city saw more than 2,000 murders many years during those three decades. In 2020, the city recorded 462 homicides — an increase of 45 percent over 2019, but still far below historic highs. Shooting incidents are up 68 percent compared to this time in 2020 and have more than doubled compared to 2019 but remain far below the levels seen in the 1990s, ’80s and ’70s.
The economic and social pressures of the pandemic likely drove the rise in gun violence in New York City, and in cities across the country, according to criminologists. While the pandemic is beginning to subside, its effects on communities — job loss, trauma, and an anticipated wave of evictions — are expected to linger longer, prolonging the conditions favorable to gun violence. Experts have warned of a vicious cycle because retaliatory shootings often follow other individual shootings as people, often young men, grapple with the trauma, stress, and anger.
A May survey of likely voters found that crime and public safety is the top concern among Democrats. But as the June 22 primary nears, New Yorkers are split on the future of public safety in the nation’s biggest city. In another poll, a third of respondents said the new administration should move resources away from the police to fund programs that deal with mental health. Some 70 percent said they wanted to see more uniformed police officers on the subways. A fifth wanted more officers on the streets.
The candidates themselves have vastly different visions on the role policing should play in reducing crime. Here, The Trace breaks down the positions of the five leading candidates.
Eric Adams: The most vocal advocate for more police
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, has put police at the center of his plan to address gun violence. He’s promised to institute “precision public safety” by using data and predictive tools to focus police resources on violent crime and guns. Adams has also called for bringing back the plainclothes anti-crime unit — which disbanded last year amid the protests over George Floyd’s murder — as an anti-gun unit targeting “known shooters.”
Adams proposes adding more police officers to the subways, shifting detectives from low-crime areas to “hot spots,” strengthening handgun laws, and has said he would “zero in on gangs and guns.”
Other candidates have criticized Adams for his support of stop-and-frisk police tactics and for relying too much on police in his public safety plan, and his rivals have attempted to paint him as an extension of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “tough-on-crime” policies. Adams has pointed to his history as a reformer in the Police Department in the 1990s and his testimony in federal court against the overuse of stop and frisk.
Adams said he’d favor a refined use of the policy in limited scenarios and that he’d be open to revisiting a 2020 law that banned police officers from using chokeholds. To reform the Police Department, Adams has said he would recruit more Black and brown officers, appoint the city’s first woman police commissioner, empower communities to have a voice in who leads their local police precincts, and publicize a list of officers being monitored for bad behavior.
He’s also said he wants to prevent crime from happening in the first place. To do that, he supports increasing funding for the city’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, hiring more mental health professionals, and investing in the city’s Crisis Management System, which deploys violence interrupters and coordinates community-based nonprofits.
Kathryn Garcia: Buybacks and neighborhood policing
Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia has made gun violence and public safety a central part of her campaign, aligning herself, like Adams, against the “defund the police” movement. She supports increasing the number of officers on streets, reassigning more officers to neighborhood policing, and expanding the NYPD’s Gun Violence Suppression Division, a unit of detectives that focuses on gun violence and gun trafficking.
Garcia, unlike Adams, opposes stop and frisk in any form, calling it a failed policy, and has said she supports the 2020 law that outlawed chokeholds by police. On police reform, Garcia has called for raising the recruitment age to 25; instituting new training programs; requiring every officer to live within the five city limits; and instituting a “zero tolerance” policy for rule infractions by police officers. She has proposed docking officer pay in cases of misconduct and instituting more transparent disciplinary processes.
Her plan also calls for embedding mental health and domestic violence professionals alongside police officers to respond to nonviolent 911 calls, and funding Cure Violence and other violence interrupter groups.
Garcia has placed a particular focus on the number of guns on New York streets. She says she’d work with the federal government to slow the flow of illegal guns into the city via the Iron Pipeline. Garcia has also said she would expand gun buyback programs, which allow people to turn over firearms to police in exchange for money, no questions asked. Though research has shown that buybacks aren’t particularly effective, Garcia has said every gun recovered is “potentially a life saved.”
Andrew Yang: A “massive” police recruitment drive
Perhaps more than any other candidate, entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has positioned himself as a harsh critic of the “defund the police” movement. In recent debates, Yang has been more explicit about increasing the size of the police force — promising a “massive” recruitment drive — and his desire to improve relations between City Hall and police. Yang’s pro-police positions garnered him an endorsement from one of the city’s police unions, which once represented Adams when he was a captain.
Yang said he would bring back the plainclothes anti-crime unit to focus on gun violence and has drawn attention to low clearance rates for violent gun crimes. He’s proposed adding more detectives, more resources for the Gun Violence Suppression Division, and more officers on the subways.
Yang has said he would scale up a program to send mental health professionals and social workers who respond to 911 calls for people in mental distress, along with Cure Violence and other gun violence interruption programs.
Yang says he wants to “overhaul” police oversight by bolstering civilian review of police misconduct, appointing a police commissioner whose career has not primarily been in law enforcement, and pursuing a residency requirement for new officers.
Scott Stringer: Slash bureaucracy and shift police resources
Though Scott Stringer, the city’s current comptroller and former Manhattan Borough President, hasn’t gone as far as candidate Maya Wiley in promising to reduce the overall size of the police department, he has said he wants to cut “bloat” from NYPD bureaucracy and refocus resources on reducing gun violence.
Stringer has said he would scale back headquarters and shift that money instead to local precincts with the highest rates of gun violence and to community-based programs like Cure Violence, Ceasefire, and Operation Peacekeeper, all of which focus on de-escalating conflicts and working with high-risk people to prevent violence. Stringer wants to more effectively use gun trace data to stop the flow of illegal guns, but without relying on indiscriminate police stops or unproven strategies like gun buybacks.
As comptroller, Stringer pushed for police disciplinary records to be published online, put the Department of Corrections on a “watch list” for its spending practices, and advocated for the closure of Rikers Island, the city’s largest jail. But opponents say he did not do enough. Garcia, in particular, criticized him for auditing the NYPD fewer times than the Parks Department, despite the police having a much larger budget.
Stringer has proposed transferring 911 calls regarding homelessness, mental health crises, substance use, and wellness checks from police to civilian crisis teams, and as comptroller called for cutting $275 million per year from the NYPD’s budget. “Here’s the goal: Keep our streets safe, understand that policing matters, but do it in a fair and just way,” Stringer said. “And let’s not go back to the days we’re going to regret.”
Maya Wiley: Cut police to invest in communities
Civil rights attorney Maya Wiley calls for treating gun violence as a public health issue by expanding community and hospital-based violence interruption programs and reorienting the Police Department to focus on violent crimes and gun trafficking. Her proposal, which was the first policy paper she released after launching her campaign, also includes doubling the number of jobs in the city’s summer employment programs for young people most at risk of violence.
Wiley has promised to cut at least $1 billion per year from the NYPD’s budget to fund alternatives to traditional policing. At a debate, she said she wants a smaller Police Department, proposed scrapping the next two police cadet classes, and criticized other candidates’ promises to bring back the plainclothes anti-crime unit. “We can’t do safety at the expense of justice,” she said.
She has said she would appoint a civilian police commissioner, shut down the NYPD’s Vice Unit, and create teams of crisis responders to respond to mental health calls instead of the police, while creating a $18 million fund with money redirected from the Police Department to communities with the highest rates of gun violence.