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GOP candidate for New York governor uses crime wave to hammer incumbent Hochul

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republicans are running strong in many places as we near election time, and that includes the blue state of New York, where the Democratic governor faces an unexpectedly close race for reelection. The challenger is attacking Democrats over crime. NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The latest viral video to put New Yorkers on edge is from last Friday. It shows a commuter getting tackled out of the blue and shoved under the tracks of the L train.

PETER KERRE: That was just two stops from here.

KASTE: Peter Kerre is outside a nearby subway station in Bushwick. He recalls another violent crime here two years ago, a woman who was severely beaten by a stranger.

KERRE: I just said, you know what? Enough is enough. I just jumped on this bike of mine, and I rode down here, and I decided that, you know what? I'm - you know, I'll be a presence here at this, you know, station.

KASTE: He started a group of volunteers called SafeWalks to escort people home. He assumed it would be a temporary thing, just for the dark days of the pandemic. Instead, he says, the demand for the service has grown.

KERRE: When we ask folks, they're still terrified. They're still scared. There's still lots of incidents happening, which is sad. It's an unfortunate thing because ideally, you know, this should be something that should have only lasted, like, maybe two or three months.

KASTE: Fear of crime has persisted in New York even as the pandemic fades. And in this state, there's another potential factor. Right before COVID, New York reformed its bail system, which means a lot fewer people go to jail now before trial. At the time, Democrats celebrated the reform. Three years on, Republicans are blaming it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Zeldin, Zeldin, Zeldin.

KASTE: Here's Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin accepting the endorsement of the corrections officers union outside Rikers Island jail earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE ZELDIN: We want boldness. We want courage. And that means that on Day 1, we will declare a crime emergency in the state of New York.

KASTE: Zeldin is promising to suspend bail reform and other recent reforms meant to reduce the number of people in jail. Republicans say when some of those people are released, they re-offend. But Democrats say the percentages are very low and it's unjust to keep people locked up before trial just because they can't afford bail. Tiffany Caban is a New York City councilmember and former public defender who advocates for less incarceration.

TIFFANY CABAN: For a long time, Black and brown communities have been harmed by the policies and laws connected to our criminal legal system. And this is us trying to right some wrongs. And we've done it in a way that has not had an effect on public safety. And that's what all the data and the research shows.

KASTE: But everyone doesn't agree about what the numbers show. To get an opposite view of reality, just go to the Queens neighborhood of Rafael Mangual. He researches policing and public safety for the conservative Manhattan Institute. He's convinced that recent laws to reduce incarceration have undermined public order in New York.

RAFAEL MANGUAL: I think that the criminal offending population has taken note, and I think that New Yorkers are noticing that, just by virtue of that general deterioration in order - people taking over streets now to hold little car events where they're doing doughnuts in a circle, literally stopping traffic in America's most major city as if they are the police.

KASTE: The complicated truth is that there have been so many social variables in the last few years - closed schools, disrupted work, political upheaval - that no one can really prove that one thing made crime go up. What is clear, though, is the public's concern, acknowledged last night during the gubernatorial debate by Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHY HOCHUL: Now, I understand the fear. I walk the streets of New York City every day. I've taken the subways. This fear is real. There's facts that talk about statistics which make a different case. But I'm also dealing with real human beings.

KASTE: And that fear has allowed Zeldin to make this a competitive race, which opens up the possibility that the next governor of New York could be a pro-Trump Republican.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.