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Some liberal cities are embracing tough-on-crime policies


Nationally, crime is on the decline, but urban communities across the country are still plagued by violent crime. And due to a mix of factors, including high-profile violent crimes that have attracted a lot of attention in many big cities lately, there has been a lot of focus on this issue. And there's also been a policy shift in some big Democratic-run cities. Lawmakers in places like San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. are embracing the kind of tough-on-crime policies that they have denounced for much of the past decade. So what's going on here? We talked about it with reporters covering criminal justice in three cities. Brittany Kriegstein is a breaking news reporter with the Gothamist. Emily Davies covers crime and criminal justice for The Washington Post, and Maggie Angst covers homelessness, addiction and mental health for the San Francisco Chronicle. Welcome to all of you.

EMILY DAVIES: Thanks for having us.


DETROW: And, Maggie, I want to start with you. A recent headline in your paper said, "Voters Make It Clear: San Francisco Can No Longer Be Called A Progressive City." And I know from experience, people in California hate it when East Coast news outlets try to quantify or label California, but a New York Times article asked, "Has San Francisco Lost Its Liberal Soul?" These headlines were in response to two conservative-leaning ballot measures that recently passed. Can you give us a little bit of background on those ballot measures and where they came from?

MAGGIE ANGST: So over the course of the pandemic, San Francisco's reputation has really been reduced to this sort of doom loop city - unfairly, many residents here say. That's due to open air drug markets, property crime and this, like, exodus of office space and business closures. And I think the results of this election really showed that voters are desperate for solutions. So we saw two conservative-leaning measures proposed by Mayor London Breed, who's a moderate. One initiative required drug screenings for welfare recipients. That garnered support from about 58% of voters. Welfare recipients here who get cash aid from the city will be required to enter - if they're deemed to be drug users - required to enter treatment, and if not, they'll risk losing that cash aid. And then another measure was giving police more surveillance power and limiting oversight by the police commission. And that garnered about 54% of voter approval.

DETROW: So Emily, let's turn to you in Washington, D.C. You recently worked on a story about D.C.'s move away from more progressive crime strategies, as evidenced by this huge omnibus bill that council passed this month. I think a lot of listeners may remember another recent big crime bill that was so allegedly, quote, "soft on crime" that it led to this rare situation of a congressional override of the legislation. How should we think about this shift in D.C.?

DAVIES: So this recent piece of legislation, which is massive and includes provisions from allowing police to enforce drug-free zones to increasing certain punishments for gun crimes, does mark steps back toward where we were maybe before 2020 but does not swing back, I think, in this way that some people fear it might.

DETROW: It's really - and I obviously follow this the most closely because of these three cities, this is the one that I'm a resident of. But it's been - it's interesting how crime concerns have really overtaken local politics. You have carjacking concerns. You had - you did have a spike in the murder rate last year. You know, as opposed to, you know, we're talking nationally, a lot of these rates are coming down, but D.C. was a little bit of an outlier there. You have seen this lead to recall efforts from some of the most high-profile proponents of kind of updating criminal justice. It's - this really seems to be far and away the top issue in the city.

DAVIES: Yeah. That's right. I think about this issue in two categories. There's the political conversation, and there's the policy effects of what's going on right now. And I think they're both fascinating and worth paying close attention to. On the political side, there is just no doubt that the way we talk about crime in D.C. has changed, and it's changed dramatically in a few years. You're seeing that because of the numbers.

As you referred to, we had more homicides last year in D.C. than in any single year since 1997. And that's real. We had a serious increase in carjackings and an increase in robberies, and that affects a wider swath of people than those who've been impacted by crime in the past in D.C. And so that plus a lot of interference from Congress and pressure on local lawmakers has led to some real policy shifts. But that conversation about what is really changing in our laws versus the way that we're talking about it politically, the reality on the ground is slightly different, and I think appreciating that nuance is important.

DETROW: That's a good contrast. Let's talk about New York, Brittany. The focus there has been crime and attacks on the subway to the point where Governor Kathy Hochul recently deployed members of the National Guard to do security in subway stations. What has the reaction been so far to that move?

KRIEGSTEIN: Sure. So this is really interesting that we're speaking about this today. Just this week, we've experienced another one of these subway shootings. Two men got in an altercation at one of the subway stations in a subway car, and the altercation turned physical. And one of the men pulled out a gun. The other man actually wrestled the gun from the person who initially had it and shot him.

So commuters last week when I was speaking to them about the National Guard deployment in variety of subway stations that have actually seen some of these high-profile crimes - by the way, there were no National Guard members at those stations when I was interviewing folks. But they said overwhelmingly that they didn't think that was the right move. They thought, you know, what could the National Guard do if somebody comes into my subway car with a gun? - which is exactly what we saw happen yesterday.

And so today the tune changed a little bit - people saying, we do need more security. We just do, whether it's National Guard, whether it's the police. We need bag checks. You know, we're hearing a lot of arguments that we haven't heard in a really long time for these increased safety measures and pretty invasive ones, too - checking bags, scanning people walking in. So it's a really interesting turn even in the last week.

DETROW: I'm curious what all three of you are looking for going forward. You know, we've had these political shifts. We've had these attempts at both - Emily, as you put it - policy responses and political responses. What are your big questions going forward? Emily, I'll start with you and - in Washington, D.C. and whether it's this big crime bill and how it actually affects the crime numbers or whether it's other factors.

DAVIES: I am looking to see if these more punitive measures that the council has put in place actually work, both in a short-term way and in a long-term one. I think there's a subset of people in D.C. who look at those who commit crimes as victims in their own right of a culture, a society that has underinvested in them and their families, generations of poverty, of racism, and feel like what they really need are more resources. And when crime comes to the front doorsteps of people who may not have experienced it before, that very human fear can lead to policies that some people in D.C. worry might actually hurt those people who are committing crimes even more and make them more likely to commit more crimes in the future.

And so the question is if D.C. as a city can strike this balance that everybody is talking about. From the mayor to the council, that's the word right now - is balance, the pendulum in the middle. Can we both keep people safe - people who are going about their daily lives in D.C. and want to be able to take the metro safely, to drop their kids off at school safely, to go to the grocery store without worrying - can we keep them safe while also not hurting the communities in D.C. that have for a long time been suffering? And it's that suffering that in some ways has created this crime crisis.

DETROW: And, Maggie, what are your biggest questions going forward in San Francisco?

ANGST: I think there's two things, you know, I'll be looking forward to. One is the November election. Our mayor, Mayor London Breed, faces a competitive reelection where she's going up against two moderates, and there's expected to be a progressive entering the race, Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors. So a lot of leading progressives here in San Francisco say that is going to be a better indicator of, you know, the state of San Francisco's progressivism versus conservative argument, I guess, are bent. And so I think that's going to be interesting to keep an eye out and see what the results of that are.

DETROW: And, Brittany, what about New York?

KRIEGSTEIN: Sure. I think there are a lot of questions here that are still unanswered. I think law enforcement is working frantically to try to answer this question of - how do we keep subway riders feeling safe? And even though these crimes are still isolated outliers, how can we fix public perception? The year is just obviously beginning, and we're already seeing, you know, three murders in the subway system. That's almost as many as last year, which had five. Now we've got this other incident just this week. So really a lot to think about here.

DETROW: That's Brittany Kriegstein, a breaking news reporter for the Gothamist in New York. We were also joined by Emily Davies, who covers crime and criminal justice for The Washington Post, and Maggie Angst, who covers homelessness, addiction and mental health for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thanks to all of you.

DAVIES: Thank you.

KRIEGSTEIN: Thank you so much.

ANGST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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