At a recent “Ideas That We Should Steal” conference in Philadelphia, I was both heartened and discouraged when the discussion turned to crime in our cities.
It was a reminder that there was a time when almost every elected official of both parties thought that crime was bad, that violent crime was very bad, and that officials should be laser-focused on fighting crime. Public safety was priority number one.
It was a reminder that in our very recent past we weren’t lectured about “understanding” criminals, and we didn’t have DAs who counseled would-be criminals how much they were allowed to steal without being prosecuted. When no serious person — certainly no mom in a major city — ever talked about “defunding the police.” When riots weren’t called “mostly peaceful” protests? When rioters crashing windows at the Apple Store to steal MacBooks wasn’t called a “demonstration.”
Who were these panelists talking about “standing by” the officers on the front line; making sure that criminals knew they would be dealt with; and, that public safety was job one?
No, the panelists were not Republicans Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani or even former Eastern Pennsylvania US Attorney Bill McSwain. All the panelists were Democrats.
Former mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Kasim Reed of Atlanta, and former Philadelphia and Washington DC Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Three African-American Democrats who oversaw cities that are majority or plurality African-American.
Their messages were direct, grounded in reality and focused on protecting the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” They spoke with clarity about the importance of setting the right tone; reassuring law-abiding citizens; and, supporting the efforts of police officers. They said these things so matter-of-factly and without doubt because to them these are facts. That is reality.
Former Mayor Reed was the most direct. If he were mayor today, he would tell criminals and young men considering committing crimes: “I’m not playing. The foolishness has to stop…if you car-jack someone; we’re gonna have a conversation — and, you’re gonna have a problem.”
Former Mayor Nutter, sounded both serious and grounded — grounded in the reality of having had to sit with both the families of fallen police officers and with grandmothers yelling at or crying out to him after a night of violence. He criticized both politicians and media members who recently have begun touting the statistics showing a recent reduction in crime.
He made two points. First, crime data shows a reduction from prior years — but, they’re down from historic highs. It is not time to crow about crime data.
Second, he shared that when he was mayor and visited a neighborhood where a gun fight had just occurred, he never, ever told a scared, angry grandmother that statistically crime was down: she didn’t give a crap!
Former police commissioner Ramsey stressed the importance of the police officers on the front lines knowing that the commissioner and mayor had their backs.
If you’re under 30, please…just trust me. This used to be the way it was — not just in the 1920’s, but as recently as fifteen years ago. Candidates for District Attorney and Attorney General — Republicans and Democrats — actually fought over who was toughest on crime and would actually make us safer.
Mayor Nutter and Commissioner Ramsey served in Philadelphia through the end of 2016, and Mayor Reed of Atlanta served through the end of 2018. That was only a few years back, but their rhetoric and their guidance sounded like a lifetime ago. They don’t like what they are seeing, and they know there are answers. It begins with a mindset, a clear message; then, a comprehensive plan; and, the resources and courage to see it through.
No doubt a mayor’s job is complicated and complex. And anyone following big city politics over the last few years knows that the culture wars and even national and international politics have put themselves front and center in campaigns for mayor.
There’s no doubt that these three African-American Democrats are well-aware of what is happening in America, in their party and in their cities. Yet, their focus and clarity is what continued to stand-out.
Mayor Nutter (who also served as a city councilman) put it succinctly: “First and foremost: your duty is to make sure your city is safe.”
Mayor Reed, who had been a member of Georgia’s State Senate and State House, summed up his duty as mayor in a way that made you feel like you could trust him with your family. “My job is to make sure that when you get up and leave your home for work, school, church or shopping, that you come home safe.”
It was both discouraging and heartening that the comments, mindset and commonsense crime fighting focus came from officials not in office. From men who served just years ago, but sounded as if you were listening to your grandparents talk about their old neighborhoods.
Just to be clear, it was equally clear that they would not tolerate officers who abused or misused their power, and they are fully aware of the economic and sociological challenges in many communities. But they have the ability to speak to those realities and also speak to public safety as priority number one. And they recognize that things have gone off the rails, and that they could and should be fixed.
Locally, the election of mayor-elect Cherelle Parker and her appointment of Kevin Bethel as Police Commissioner offer hope for Philadelphia and our region.
Parker, aside from her career, is a mom living in Mount Airy. Her speeches and rhetoric on fighting crime is what set her apart in a very crowded primary. And she kept it up in the general election and in her transition.
Her remarks come from the heart of a mom, who wants her son to come home safely after school. She knows shop owners victimized by robbery. She talked about resuming “Stop & Frisk” and asking for the National Guard to help in Kensington. Whatever one may think of the effectiveness of those tactics, her symbolism is clear. As we say in politics: “I smell what she’s cooking.”
Her selection of Bethel is reassuring. As both mayors Nutter and Reed said repeatedly, picking a police commissioner is the most important selection a mayor will make and will set the tone for your administration.
As I listen to Parker and Bethel, I am more heartened. They are from the Nutter/Ramsey wing of the Democrat Party — the “reality” wing. They are not interested in virtue-signaling or using small business owners or school children as tests in a left-wing social experiment.
People of good will — city and suburbs, Republican and Democrat — need to have their backs, when the inevitable push-back arrives. Otherwise, Parker and Bethel may not even be invited to speak at an “Ideas” conference a decade from now.
But I’m hopeful…and ready to support them.
Guy Ciarrocchi is a Senior Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for Broad+Liberty and RealClear Pennsylvania. Follow Guy @PaSuburbsGuy