Mar 12, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Blue cities go red with conservative policies on crime

Illustration of a giant red hand and gavel coming down on a tiny man in a burglar's mask

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

From coast to coast, American cities known for their liberal policies are taking more aggressive, conservative approaches to fighting crime.

Why it matters: It's a surprising and stark reversal for Democrats who pushed for significant criminal justice reforms four years ago.

  • The changes expose intense pressure on Democrats to adopt tougher anti-crime laws and policies they once ridiculed — and reflect rising fears about violent crime among voters on both ends of the political spectrum.

State of play: San Francisco voters approved two ballot measures to expand police surveillance and impose drug screenings for those receiving welfare benefits.

  • In New York City, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently ordered hundreds of National Guard troops to address crime in the city's subways.
  • Oregon is recriminalizing possession of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, three years after becoming the first state to decriminalize possession and personal use of all drugs.
  • D.C. just passed a sweeping new crime bill that raises the penalties for thefts and gun crimes.
  • Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, governor of the state with one of the highest rates for killings by police, is threatening to call a special legislative session for more anti-crime measures.

The big picture: This rightward shift comes after many liberal cities and states limited police powers and cut law enforcement budgets in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing.

Case in point: "My number one job is to keep Angelenos safe, and I don't think it is helpful to our city to be losing officers by the thousands," Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told Axios in September.

  • Bass pushed for raises for police and hiring bonuses to battle officer shortages following jumps in violent crime in 2022.
  • It was a shift for Bass, a former member of Congress, who had been backing federal police reform that fell apart amid partisan bickering.

Reality check: Even though tough-on-crime policies are sweeping blue cities, violent crime has fallen back down to 2019 levels in the U.S. after spiking during the pandemic, though not all cities have seen crime drop.

But the perception of crime remains high. 63% of Americans say crime in the U.S. is very or extremely serious, according to Gallup. That's the highest share in decades — and up from 48% in 2018.

Go deeper: Blue cities rethink their embrace of progressive drug policies

Go deeper