Peoria, Ill., saw a spike in violent crime through the pandemic that startled local leaders.
Gun violence among young people in particular was going up at a disturbing pace in a city that already had one of the highest murder rates in the country. Democratic Mayor Rita Ali needed a plan to yank the numbers back down.
She hired a new top cop two months after being sworn in in 2021 who sought to make the police more visible and opened a tip line at the beginning of 2022. The city launched a violence “interrupter” program. A community center started offering school tutoring, physical fitness classes and mentoring on how to handle conflicts without picking up a gun.
We asked these 50 mayors what they considered to be the leading causes of crime in their cities. Here’s what they told us:
15 mayors mentioned
drugs or addiction
12 mayors mentioned
economic inequality, poverty or lack of opportunities
Eight mayors mentioned
guns or illegal firearms
Seven mayors mentioned
Four mayors mentioned
car theft or other types of theft
Peoria still had a high rate of gun violence last year. But shootings and homicides fell roughly 26 percent, compared to 2021, a drop Ali and other local leaders attribute to the new suite of programs.
“We’re looking block by block how we can address gun violence and really transform the situation within these hot spots,” Ali, the first Black woman elected to lead Peoria, a city 160 miles southwest of Chicago, said in an interview. “We think if we can interrupt the violence within these hot spots, that it’s going to have a collective impact within our community.”
There’s a similar scene playing out across the country. Leaders for communities of all sizes are desperate to restore the broad, steady declines in violence that preceded Covid-19. What’s happening is an experimentation with anti-crime methods that respect the protests that erupted across the nation after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. How mayors address the issue of public safety will decide their political fate, whether their cities prosper or stagnate, and to what degree their residents can live without fear for their lives or their family.
For 2023, POLITICO assembled 50 mayors — one from every state — to shine a light on the challenges their communities face and offer up the lessons they’ve learned on the job. Throughout the year, members of the inaugural Mayors Club will share their perspective on key issues that weigh on them and their peers, in both surveys and interviews. We’ll hear directly from leaders who are far from Washington’s corridors of power, representing cities and towns big and small, urban and suburban.
The first topic we asked the members of the Mayors Club about: Crime and policing.
Nearly half of the 50 mayors in The Mayors Club said public safety was the single most pressing issue in their communities. We had them rank it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the most important.
Ali and mayors all over the country are grappling with a similar surge in violence, anchored with the huge responsibility of reducing crime rates with limited money and limited power. It’s a confluence of forces that leave mayors exasperated — often feeling boxed in by a frightened public and an intractable problem.
Here these mayors will discuss their search for solutions to many of the same problems: Understaffed police departments facing low morale — and a public uneasiness with the people hired to protect them. A steady flow of illegal guns. Inflamed and inaccurate rhetoric. State lawmakers who get in their way. And, of course, insufficient funds.
“It’s a very volatile situation,” Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, a Democrat, said of crime in his city. “We can have a very safe month, then you can have a mass shooting and the next month is challenging.”
Just three mayors we surveyed said their constituents were not concerned about crime.
33 were a little or somewhat worried
The majority of the Mayors Club said their concerns about crime aligned with their residents’ — and a quarter reported being more worried.
Less worried about crime
36 were as worried about crime as their constituents
Mayors Club members believe their constituents have a mostly accurate view of crime rates in the communities. We had them rank it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all accurate and 10 being completely accurate.
Louisville, Ky., Mayor Craig Greenberg, a Democrat, campaigned on combating gun violence, and a few months into his tenure he’s trying to fulfill that promise. It’s an issue that became deeply personal for him — and predates this week’s shooting less than a mile from City Hall: He survived a shooting at his campaign headquarters last year when a candidate for city council fired several rounds before a door was closed and barricaded. No one was injured but a bullet grazed the sweater Greenberg was wearing.
A few weeks into office, Greenberg announced a new plan unique to Kentucky: Guns seized by the police department would be disabled before being turned over to the state. Their firing pins would be removed and a label added saying that the gun may have been used in the killing of a child or to commit other homicides in Louisville. Kentucky law mandates that all forfeited guns must be auctioned, a requirement Greenberg said is “dangerous and absurd” because it allows for the weapons to be recirculated.
“There are thousands and thousands of guns in our possession we are going to be rendering inoperative,” Greenberg said in an interview before the downtown bank shooting that left at least four people dead on Monday. “We believe it’s important to do everything we can to continue to reduce gun violence.”
Greenberg, as mayor of Kentucky’s largest city, is likely setting himself up for a legal challenge to this workaround as well as a confrontation with the conservative state legislature behind the decades-old law. And proceeds from the auctions go toward buying equipment like body armor and tasers for police departments.
The Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police opposes the mayor’s plan and said it “will have far reaching ramifications for police and sheriffs departments.”
Greenberg has promised that his initiative won’t hurt funding for law enforcement.
More than 75 percent of The Mayors Club reported that they believe their constituents trust their police force. About 14 percent were neutral.
Strongly agree or agree
Strongly disagree or disagree
7 mayors said they were neutral
More than 90 percent of the Mayors Club said they would feel comfortable approaching their police chief to talk about their constituents’ complaints.
Strongly agree or agree
No mayors said they were neutral
Mayors told POLITICO they are consumed with figuring out how to keep guns off the streets — and they’re facing new challenges all the time.
In Lancaster, Penn., Mayor Danene Sorace said the police department has discovered an uptick in ghost guns — untraceable firearms that can be bought online or assembled at home using a 3D printer. A recent federal report found that the use of ghost guns has risen by more than 1,000 percent since 2017.
“As a mayor, you feel that you have no sense of control over these things, especially given the climate around guns in our country and the lack of support for law enforcement to help stem the tide of illegal guns,” Sorace, a Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s really frustrating.”
In Columbia, S.C., Mayor Daniel Rickenmann is in the process of setting up a new anti-gun violence office, an effort he imagines will consolidate resources and deploy a coordinated response across city agencies. Rickenmann, a Republican, has sparred with the city council over funding, arguing that Columbia — which experienced more shootings in 2021 than any year on record — needs a central hub dedicated to the issue.
Some council members have balked at the price tag, which is estimated at more than $800,000 in federal funds over three years.
Rickenmann also wants to see the state legislature, ruled by a Republican supermajority, pass some gun restrictions while also preserving the right to own a firearm.
“We’ve got to show people you’ve got to be responsible,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think we should take away the opportunity for people to own a firearm … but it doesn’t mean you can take it to the mall.”
He added: “I don’t think the intent was that everything is a free-for-all, and I do think we’ve got to have some boundaries and restrictions.”
An increasing number of cities across the country are rolling out violence interruption initiatives — programs that send individuals out onto the streets to deescalate the potential for crimes before they occur. These interrupters often have a criminal record and relationships with gang members after following that life themselves. Their salaries are paid for by a combination of federal and local funding, depending on the city.
In Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Randall Woodfin is bringing the city’s interrupters into the hospital by sending workers to the bedside of gunshot victims admitted to the trauma department.
“What we want is not only for that victim to survive, what we want is for them not to retaliate,” Woodfin, a Democrat, said.
But these interrupter programs have run into problems getting off the ground, mainly with building the trust of law enforcement and community members and convincing those leaders to spend significant sums. It’s difficult for advocates of these efforts to prove they prevented crimes that never occurred and the interrupters can sometimes face tremendous risk.
In Baltimore, which has had a violence interrupter program since 2007, three workers employed on behalf of the city’s Safe Streets initiative were recently shot and killed on the job over an 18-month period. One of those men was Dante Barksdale, the director of Safe Streets and a close friend of Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, a Black man who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood, a predominantly low-income area with high crime rates.
Following the murders, Baltimore’s leaders faced questions about the program’s risks and whether there are better approaches.
“The day that [Barksdale] died is one of the hardest days of my life as an elected official,” said Scott, who got choked up when talking about his death. But he said Barksdale was committed to the effort.
Barksdale would tell Scott: “We’ve got to go deeper. We’ve got to do more of it, not less, because it’s necessary and it works.”
Scott is pushing a comprehensive public safety strategy that not only relies on law enforcement but also programs like Safe Streets and the recently reimagined Group Violence Reduction Strategy that directs job training, drug counseling, housing and behavioral health support to at-risk individuals.
“When you think about gun violence as a disease or a cancer, you have to cure the whole cancer, not just one symptom,” Scott said.
What do you wish state lawmakers better understood about crime in your community?
“Police officers need more mental health support and services. No one really prepares us for if there’s a homicide in the city or what happens when you lose an officer.”
— Maria Rivera, Central Falls, Rhode Island
“We still struggle in Iowa with some of the small drug offenses. Marjuana is not legalized here for recreational use and [we have] limited medical use. There’s not any real agreement. They’re just not open to that conversation right now.”
— Brad Cavanagh, Dubuque, Iowa
“[Fentanyl] is new, very powerful, extremely addictive and very deadly. We need state laws addressing the people directly dealing that poison.”
— Todd Gloria, San Diego, California
Members of The Mayors Club said it is crucial to encourage law enforcement to embrace community policing tactics: being more visible within their cities and towns and directing nonviolent 911 calls to mental health professionals. That approach, they believe, will help build trust between law enforcement and residents.
In few places has that mandate been more difficult than in Tacoma, Wash., where Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died during an arrest in 2020. The incident sparked a crisis for the city and state, pulling in the governor and leading Mayor Victoria Woodards to immediately call for the removal and prosecution of the four police officers on the scene after video footage of the altercation was released showing the officers choking Ellis and repeatedly tasing him. Three of the officers are awaiting trial on murder and manslaughter charges. The Tacoma Police union has called the prosecution’s case a “witch hunt” and that the officers acted “in accordance with the law.”
Woodards, a Democrat and the city’s first Black mayor, said she found the Ellis killing and its fallout “devastating” as she dealt with her own emotions about “representing the system that has now hurt my community.”
“Mayors have to be really careful. … I’ve got to call out what’s wrong but I also have to balance that with still saying that those who are still left, those who are waking up every day fighting crime, still have to be honored in the work that they’re doing,” she said. “It’s a tightrope. It’s not easy.”
A majority of the Mayors Club said they intended to spend more money on their police department this year than last year.
More money than was spent last year
16 said the same amount as last year
When given three choices for how to spend a hypothetical $500,000 public safety budget surplus, nearly 70 percent said they’d hire social workers.
11 mayors said
create/hire more police officers
34 mayors said
hire social workers to handle nonviolent policing duties such as mental health issues
Five mayors said
invest in drug rehabilitation programs
When offered several choices for how to spend a broader hypothetical $500,000 budget surplus, more than one-third said they would spend the money on housing.
Mayors shared deep concerns about the quality of life for police officers, who they say are experiencing low morale amid the national discourse over policing and mental health issues associated with their dangerous jobs.
And law enforcement resources are stretched thin, an issue exacerbated by recruitment challenges.
“People just don’t want to be police officers and that’s a big challenge,” Dubuque, Iowa, Mayor Brad Cavanagh, a Democrat, said in an interview. “Recruiting and hiring is our biggest concern right now.”
The Dubuque police department currently has 14 vacancies and no longer receives a comparable amount of applicants for open positions that it used to.
“It’s a challenge when you have a national narrative where people are not as supportive of the police, and for some really legitimate reasons,” he said of the police department’s personnel setbacks. “There’s been some terrible things that have happened at the hands of police officers in the United States. And it leads to a larger discussion that doesn’t attract somebody to the profession.”
LONG TERM POLICY AMBITIONS
One-third of the mayors in the club reported drugs and addiction as the leading cause of crime in their communities. Nearly a quarter cited economic inequality, poverty and a lack of opportunities.
Some mayors are hoping to address a few of these root causes with a greater focus on lifting people out of poverty or helping those struggling with substance abuse.
In Louisville, Ky., the city is exploring how to create a universal pre-kindergarten program.
The city of San Diego is lobbying the California Legislature to crack down on dealers of illicit fentanyl, who prey on the homeless population.
In Birmingham, Ala., the city has provided more than $3 million in college tuition assistance to more than 800 high school students.
Here is what some mayors said they would change about their police department — if there were no political blowback:
new patrol cars
more officers living inside city limits
ending qualified immunity
proactive in citing violators
cameras in public areas
hire a full time psychologist
terminate bigoted officers
more social workers
All these efforts are intended to get at systemic issues mayors believe may meet long term policy goals — and could be better realized with the support of state and federal government and more money.
“We’re dealing with the symptom and not the underlying cause,” Democratic Santa Fe, N.M., Mayor Alan Webber said.
What do you wish state lawmakers better understood about crime in your community?
“We need more tools at the local level to enforce the illegal trafficking of guns in our city. The legislature here in Ohio has undermined home rule for us as mayors to cut down on guns. That plays a large driver in the homicides we see across the state.”
— Justin Bibb, Cleveland, Ohio
“What’s happening right now in 2023 with the proliferation, the ease and access to guns in urban cores across America is extremely reminiscent of the crack cocaine epidemic in the 80’s.”
— Randall Woodfin, Birmingham, Alabama
“One of the things the state needs to recognize is that at the same time we want more officers and more response to things that are crimes, we want more prevention and intermediation and diversion for things that are social problems not criminal problems. It’s underfunded, it’s harder to explain to the public, it is less politically popular than being ‘tough on crime.’”
— Alan Webber, Santa Fe, New Mexico
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