Battle for Black Voters in N.Y.C. Mayor’s Race Centers on Policing

As New York’s Democratic primary nears, Black voters appear torn between Eric Adams and Maya Wiley and their divergent views on balancing public safety and civil rights.

With concerns rising over violent crime in New York City, the Rev. Al Sharpton posed a sensitive question to several mayoral candidates at a recent forum in Harlem: Would they consider embracing the stop-and-frisk policing tactic as part of their public safety strategy?

“Is that a serious question, Rev.?” said Maya Wiley, a civil rights lawyer. “We are not going backward to what beat us, what broke our ankles, busted our jaws and put our kids in jail for poverty.”

But Eric Adams, a former police officer who, like Ms. Wiley, is Black, saw the issue differently.

“It’s a constitutional policy given to law enforcement officers,” he said, while quickly acknowledging that the police had been allowed to abuse it by stopping people without probable cause.

The sharp increase in shootings and homicides in New York has made crime the No. 1 issue for voters this year, polls show, but that concern is being felt even more deeply in predominantly Black neighborhoods that have struggled with both gun violence and the effects of overly aggressive policing.

Black voters, who make up more than a quarter of the city’s electorate, are a valuable constituency: Their support played an instrumental role in the 1989 election of David N. Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, and in the 2013 win by Bill de Blasio, who is finishing up his second and final term.

All 13 Democratic candidates for mayor have courted votes in Black neighborhoods and churches. But according to polls and interviews across the city, Black voters seem to be zeroing in on two of the seven Black candidates: Mr. Adams, who has led recent polls, and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Wiley.

Their very different approaches to public safety and criminal justice concerns have become central to their attempts to win over Black voters, roughly a year after national protests against police brutality erupted after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Parallel with our concern about police violence is our concern about gun violence,” Mr. Sharpton said. “You have Black people that live in neighborhoods where we are afraid of the cops and the robbers.”

At an early polling site at the Bronx County Courthouse, Zuri Washington, 30, said she ranked Ms. Wiley first and left Mr. Adams off her ballot because of their stances on policing and public safety.

“I know that crime is up in the city, I understand that. But that doesn’t mean we need more police,” Ms. Washington, an actress, said after casting her ballot on Saturday. “There needs to be different strategies for moving forward, and Eric Adams is not that person.”

But other early voters cited the rising crime numbers: As of June 6, shootings in New York City had risen by 68 percent from last year; homicides had risen by 12 percent over the same period.

Fears of violent crime have led some leaders in predominantly Black neighborhoods to reject efforts to defund the police, highlighting a divide that cuts across racial, ideological and generational lines.

“I would like to feel safe walking down the street,” said Barbara Mack, a retired guidance counselor who voted for Mr. Adams on Saturday in South Jamaica, Queens.

“He’s been a police officer,” Ms. Mack said. “He’s supervised police. He’s tough. I don’t think he’ll accept garbage.”

In the 2013 mayoral campaign, Mr. de Blasio seized on the Police Department’s overreliance on stop-and-frisk tactics, where officers stopped and questioned thousands of mostly Black and Latino men, the overwhelming majority of whom were found to have done nothing wrong.

Mr. de Blasio aggressively opposed the police tactic, and was able to defeat a handful of more established Democratic rivals, including William C. Thompson, the former city comptroller who was the lone Black candidate that year.

This year, four of the eight main candidates in the Democratic primary are Black: Mr. Adams; Ms. Wiley; Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive; and Raymond J. McGuire, a former vice chairman at Citi.

Their positions on policing and public safety offer some clear distinctions, with Ms. Wiley and Ms. Morales on the left and Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuire toward the political center.

Ms. Morales, who identifies as Afro-Latina, has embraced the defund the police movement by promising to cut $3 billion from the police budget and put the money toward social services.

Mr. McGuire formerly served on the New York City Police Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Police Department, and has come out firmly against the defund movement but said he will not increase the use of stop and frisk.

Neither has made an impact in the limited public polling available, including among Black voters. In a poll released on Monday by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, 43 percent of likely Black primary voters said they planned to rank Mr. Adams first; Ms. Wiley was a distant second with 11 percent.

But Ms. Wiley has gained momentum, winning endorsements in recent weeks from influential left-leaning politicians like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate.

She has pledged to cut $1 billion from the police budget, cancel two classes of incoming police cadets and end the use of taxpayer money to defend officers in “egregious” instances of misconduct.

“Stop and frisk is not coming back in a Maya Wiley administration, nor is the anti-crime unit,” Ms. Wiley said recently after greeting voters outside Yankee Stadium, referencing plainclothes units of officers that were focused on violent crime and were involved in a high number of shootings. They were disbanded last year but Mr. Adams has proposed bringing them back.

Earlier this month, Ms. Wiley released an ad criticizing the Police Department’s response to the protests over the murder of Mr. Floyd. “They rammed into peaceful protesters, beat others to the ground and New York’s leaders defended it,” Ms. Wiley said in the ad.

That same day, Mr. Adams also released an ad, titled “Safer,” which focused on how he plans to help New Yorkers “feel safe and secure” so that children could play “without getting hit by a stray bullet.”

Maya Wiley, who has recently won endorsements from influential left-leaning politicians, argues that increasing policing is not the way to improve safety.
Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Further contrasts were clear after the shooting death of Justin Wallace, 10, in Queens. Ms. Wiley noted on Twitter that the “N.Y.P.D. couldn’t protect” the child, but it could “march through a park in riot gear, terrorizing people to enforce an arbitrary curfew,” referring to tactics employed at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Mr. Adams said: “You can’t have a city where 10-year-old babies are shot.”

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Adams has highlighted his background as a transit officer and as a Police Department captain who spoke out against discriminatory policies from within the agency. Mr. Adams’s testimony in 2013 helped a federal judge rule that the way the Police Department was using stop and frisk was unconstitutional.

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After a shooting in Times Square last month that injured several tourists, Mr. Adams held two crime-related news conferences within 24 hours, and renewed calls to reinstitute the plainclothes anti-crime unit to focus on guns and gangs. He proposed a 511 hotline for gun tips following a weekend in May when the police said more than two dozen people were shot across the city, and he has denounced graffiti, ATVs and dirt bikes as signs of lawlessness.

And after several instances of violence on the subway, Mr. Adams rode the train to Brooklyn from Manhattan with members of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 to call for more police officers to patrol the system.

“It’s really wild out here,” said Cassandra Solomon, 55, a legal administrative assistant from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, who spoke with Mr. Adams on the subway platform at West 4th Street. “I know the whole climate with the police and our young Black men, but we still need some kind of protection.”

Mr. Adams has tried to moderate his message on policing by saying that he would improve police training and speed up the disciplinary process to remove abusive officers.

Early voters in Southeast Queens over the weekend cited Mr. Adams’s familiarity with how both crime and police brutality can affect a neighborhood. Gail Whiteman, a fraud investigator with the city, and Karen DeGannes, a retired city police officer, said they both voted for Mr. Adams because of “the police situation,” as Ms. Whiteman called it.

The two Black women said they believed Mr. Adams, as a former officer, was best suited to change police culture and reduce police brutality.

Criminal justice reform advocates, however, say that Mr. Adams’s positions do not track with how the defund movement has shifted the conversation away from policing as the main source of public safety.

“In the ’90s, the city saw the problems of joblessness and homelessness and the lack of mental health care, and the police were brought in to meet that need,” said Anthonine Pierre, a spokeswoman for the Communities United for Police Reform Action Fund. “That resulted in Black people being railroaded out of communities and into jail.”

All four of the leading Black candidates say they would look for ways to move money from the police budget to schools, mental health and social services either through wholesale cuts or by cutting inefficiencies.

But Mr. Adams is the only major Democratic candidate who has said that stop-and-frisk tactics should be used, as long as the interactions were analyzed to make sure officers are complying with the law.

He has said he would protect officers who follow the rules, “but if you are abusive in my city you are going to be out of the department.” He has pledged to name a woman as police commissioner and said that he would give civilian panels the power to choose their precinct commanders.

Yet even some Black legislators who have endorsed Mr. Adams disagree with his stance on stop and frisk.

“I’m not a proponent of stop and frisk because it’s a net negative on Black and brown individuals, especially Black and brown youth,” said State Senator Jamaal Bailey, the chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, even as his party endorsed Mr. Adams earlier this month. “But we can learn from someone who has had actual policing experience.”

As the primary season entered its final days, Mr. Adams and Ms. Wiley have focused their attention on traditionally Black areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Southeast Queens and Harlem.

On a recent Sunday, Mr. Adams held a rally with Black educators in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. A few weeks earlier he gathered with a group of mostly Black male supporters at Frederick Douglass Circle.

When Ms. Wiley received an endorsement from Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the state’s highest-ranking House Democrat, she did so at Restoration Plaza, a community anchor in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Community Voices Heard Power, a group focused on racial, social and economic justice, half of whose members are Black women, endorsed her at the Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem.

“I am here to tell you that we will no longer allow the powers that be in this city to talk about us without answering to us,” said Afua Atta-Mensah, the group’s executive director, her voice rising as if she was drawing vitality from the towering 10-foot-tall bronze statue behind her. “It’s our time now.”

Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.