By Aswad Walker
Recently, four Black mayors, leaders of the nation’s four largest cities, participated in a panel discussion during the 2023 National Urban League Convention held in Houston. Mayors Eric Adams (New York), Karen Bass (Los Angeles), Brandon Johnson (Chicago) and Sylvester Turner (Houston) discussed several topics during the conversation facilitated by NUL President and CEO Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans.
Here are excerpts from their conversation on crime.
TURNER: In all of our cities, homicide rates are down despite what people are saying, what they’re hearing. Violence in our city is down. But I do recognize we can spit out the numbers and if people don’t feel safe, then they’re not safe. I got that. And as long as there’s one person being killed or one person being assaulted or one car getting broken in, it is one too many. So, we are investing in police. This whole story about cities not supporting police—BS. Yes, cities are supporting police, mayors are supporting police. We want the police to have what they need to solve the crimes, but we also recognize that we have to invest in communities that have been underserved for a long, long time.
ADAMS: What we must do is what Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated: “We spend a lifetime pulling people out of the river. No one goes upstream and prevents them from falling in in the first place.” Policing, by the time a child has a gun, we already lost… When I sit down with gang members and ask them, “How many of you are dealing with learning disabilities,” it’s astonishing. Thirty to 40% of the people who are in jail right now are dyslexic. I was on a path of doing the same things. If we don’t go upstream, while we deal with the crime downstream, let’s be clear, we can’t be just upstream, because Bey-Bey is creating some havoc right now in our streets. So, we have to identify the extreme recidivists, give them the assistance they need, but we have to stop pushing people in the river. That’s why we did 100,000 summer youth jobs. That’s why we did Summer Rising, so our children can be educated all school year long. Leaning into foster care children, paying for their college tuition, giving them stipends, making sure we do money for childcare.
BASS: I believe that in our communities, we’ve worked for years and know the strategy is to intervene and prevent crime. There’s always the rap that Black folks are upset if it’s a law enforcement-involved death, but say nothing when it’s Black-on-Black, which I reject that notion. That is not true. But unfortunately, the grassroots work that happens in all of our communities is never lifted up, and we need to invest more in that… I think that sometimes Democrats in general are shy when it comes to the issue of crime and kind of go all around it. And when we do that, in my opinion, we concede the issue of crime to the right wing. And I don’t think that we should do that. I think we need to hit it head-on. If somebody commits a crime, you have to hold them accountable. But we also need to invest significant resources in the prevention of crime. I started an Office of Community Safety so that we could look at unarmed responses.
JOHNSON: In the nineties, in Chicago, there were almost 1,000 murders a year. This is not news to any of us… It’s gonna require a layered approach. In order to have better, stronger, safer cities, we have to invest in people. My father raised me with the understanding that your heart and treasure have to be aligned. That when you really love people, you invest in them… [However], there’s always been this battle or fight against liberation, particularly for Black folks because the power structure understands what works because they want it for their communities.
IMPACT OF STATE LAWS
TURNER: When there’s a police shooting, mayors have to deal with it. When there’s a shooting on one another, mayors have to deal with it. We are on both sides of the equation. And cities have to deal with everything that flows down. So, when the state of Texas passed policies that say anybody can have a gun, no permits, no licensing, and guns are everywhere, all of that flows down to cities. And we are the ones, as mayors, that have to deal with those crazy idiotic policies. If you are making the market attractive for guns and making guns available and accessible, what do you think people are gonna do with them when they get them? But it is up to us to deal with it. It does require a holistic strategy.
ADAMS: When hospitals and medical institutions weren’t doing right, we told Black and Brown people to become doctors and nurses. When our teachers were not educating our children, we recruited Black and Brown Sorors and frats to go in and become teachers. Why are we afraid to tell young, smart, Black and Brown people to go into law enforcement? If we want law enforcement to be what we wanted to be, why not recruit our talent to go in there?
We got the talent. So, we know how our policing should be in our community with the balance that we need to be recruited. I want my fraternities, my sororities, my churches, my Boules, all of my groups to say, let’s find our brightest and our best and go into this profession and define how we want policing to be. As we did with the over-proliferation of guns.
BASS: When we went through the time period of mass incarceration, which is not like it’s over, but it’s a little bit different now, laws were passed to lock us up for everything under the sun, including what I believe were health, social and economic issues that should not have required incarceration. Then laws were passed by politicians who wanted to be reelected and wanted to have their main layer that said, “I did this to be tough on crime.” Then, a lot of laws were passed to continue punishing people when they left prison. So, you are incarcerated while you’re in, and then you continue to be punished when you’re out. And that’s one of the reasons that contribute to recidivism, because if you can’t work, if you can’t find a place to live, then what are you gonna do?
TURNER: On the community aspect, we are working with community activists, getting them engaged, getting them involved, providing resources there. And we are focusing on this young population between 16 and 24. Because when I look at the numbers, it’s that group that is driving our numbers. And we’re finding ways to speak directly to those individuals, 16 to 24. And in large part, they are Black and Brown, they’re males. So, we are doing everything that we can to reach them. And that’s why it’s so important for our young folk, this young population, to see people like Mayor Eric Adams and Karen Bass and Brandon Johnson and Marc Morial, because our kids cannot be what they cannot see.