Opinion: Crime issue requires careful balancing act by California Democrats

Despite low crime rates, Democrats face a major challenge in 2022 elections

By Gil Duran

With public concern rising over crime despite record-low rates, California Democrats must walk a political tightrope in 2022. Republicans and police groups will use every crime that occurs to slam Democratic leaders and attack the state’s sweeping criminal justice reforms.

Can Democrats make Californians feel safe without rolling back crucial reforms?

In my previous column, I outlined the recent history of criminal justice in California by charting the policy shifts of former Gov. Jerry Brown. He presided over the state’s move toward mass incarceration in the 1970s, then worked to undo the mistake three decades later.

California has now adopted major reforms that emphasize alternatives to long prison sentences. Opponents blast this approach as lenient despite the reduced crime rates.

But a series of high-profile robberies and a national spike in murder have once again elevated crime as a political issue. As we find ourselves repeating the cyclical debate over crime, here are some lessons gleaned from two decades of watching the debate unfold in California.

Crime is a blame game. Like the economy, crime rises and falls. When crime drops, politicians rush to claim credit. When it rises, they scramble to avoid blame.

Traditionally, mayors get most of the blame. In turn, they put pressure on police chiefs to deliver results. Crime typically recurs, however, because it’s rooted in systemic problems beyond the scope of mayoral or police power alone.

Crime is used as a partisan weapon, with Republicans blaming Democrats for not being tough enough. In recent years, Republicans have blamed the reforms passed by California Democrats. But if Republicans ran the state they would be bragging about their miraculous crime-reducing powers. Instead, Democrats — always slow to frame the game — find themselves playing defense.

Feelings trump data. Just as some people refuse to believe in global warming or vaccine safety, some people refuse to acknowledge the reality around crime rates. Statistics show California is the safest it’s been since the early 1960s, but facts don’t win political debates.

“I can give you facts, and I’m happy to share them, but there are feelings as well,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom during an interview on the talk show “The View” last month. “Feelings matter more.”

Americans consistently overestimate crime rates.

“Americans’ perceptions of crime, however, are not always on par with reality,” wrote Justin McCarthy, a Gallup analyst, in 2015. “Despite government data showing declining violent crime rates in the U.S. over the past two decades, majorities of Americans in Gallup’s trend still maintained that crime had increased nationally.”

A Californian’s chances of becoming a crime victim are historically low, but people “feel” less safe. Elected leaders, under pressure and sensitive to public sentiment, must change this perception.

Appearances matter. In early December, California Democrats declared war on crime. Newsom, flanked by Attorney General Rob Bonta, announced a $250 million fund to target organized retail theft. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced plans for more police academies and asked Newsom to deploy the California Highway Patrol. Mayor London Breed declared an emergency in the Tenderloin, promising to make life “hell” for criminals.

This pivot looked like a coordinated effort to shift public perception through a visible crackdown on high-profile, headline-making crimes. Far-left activist types expressed outrage at what they decried as “police state” tactics, but this only amplified the message.

Visible, targeted enforcement can produce results, at least in the short term. For example, Breed’s decision to station police in Union Square appears to have temporarily ended the brazen flash mob robberies in The City’s downtown core. A surge of police into Oakland hotspots and the Tenderloin will likely suppress crime in those zones for a while (though it’s not clear increased policing will reduce overdose deaths).

In some ways, it’s a question of psychology more than policing. Crime rates remain at historic lows, but will people start to feel as safe as the data indicates?

Beware weaponized anecdotes. One shocking crime can heighten public fear and reframe the debate, regardless of statistics. News coverage emphasizing lurid crime magnifies rare events, weaponizing anecdotes into movements and herding us toward overreaction.

In 1994, one year after career criminal Richard Allen Davis kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, voters overwhelming supported a “three strikes” law to impose 25-year sentences on people with two previous convictions for serious or violent crimes. This draconian measure, meant to prevent killers like Davis from walking the streets, locked away thousands of people for relatively minor crimes.

In 2012, nearly 70% of Californians voted to revise the law so that it now only applies to violent offenses. By then, thousands of people — many of them Black and Latino men — had wasted away in prison for nonviolent crimes.

One poignant case can sway public sentiment, so opponents of reform hunt constantly for the next exploitable tragedy. In September, I wrote about how supporters of Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert tried to use a horrific Sacramento murder to attack reform and bolster her candidacy for state attorney general. The effort fizzled (the accused killer’s earlier release from jail apparently had nothing to do with reform), but they will keep trying.

The press has a crime addiction. “If it bleeds, it leads” has long been a rule in the news business. In the age of digital news, a potentially viral crime captured on video can set off a frenzied chase as multiple news outlets try to harvest clicks before interest fades.

“This is not a brand-new thing, but I must say I think this fascination with crime has gone into overdrive in American culture,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communications at DePauw University, in recent interview with Vice News.

Overzealous news coverage of crime can foment a climate of fear absurdly divorced from reality. In a year when crime will likely be a central political issue, responsible press outlets must avoid repeating past mistakes. While little can be done to tame TV news’ addiction to lurid crime stories, major California newspapers have published smart pieces that push back on false claims about reforms like Proposition 47. Such fact checks will become even more important in 2022, when we will see an all-out disinformation campaign focused on public safety.

Additionally, the reckoning over racial issues that has swept through newsrooms in recent years requires journalists to be mindful of the historically racist nature of crime coverage. Public safety is a legitimate news subject, but we can’t go back to the bad old days of blatant fearmongering in support of destructive incarceration policies that both worsened crime and destroyed communities of color.

California is a key symbol. Republicans use Democratic California as a symbol of everything bad, and stories focused on crime in the state will likely have starring roles in the 2022 midterm elections.

Democrats must defend California’s successful reforms while demonstrating that law enforcement has the tools necessary to counteract emerging threats. They must also continue to reform policing, expand alternatives to prison and address crime’s root causes.

This dual approach won’t satisfy far-left “defund the police” types, but who cares? California achieved its historic reforms with leadership from conventional Democratic leaders like Brown and Newsom, not by following politically inept radicals with no ability to win statewide campaigns.

Gil Duran is editorial page editor of The Examiner.

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