On the day after the leading Democratic candidates for mayor faced off in the first major debate of the election season, Andrew Yang attended a conference on the future of the waterfront. Scott M. Stringer went to a vacant lot in Brooklyn to talk about affordable housing. Maya Wiley toured a Puerto Rican cultural center on the Lower East Side. Eric Adams attended fund-raisers, and Raymond J. McGuire greeted business owners on Staten Island.
But whatever the candidates’ ostensible agendas, public safety — which spurred some of the hottest exchanges during the debate — remained the topic of the day, after yet another rash of attacks in the subway kept the city’s focus on its shaken sense of order.
And so there was Mr. Adams, a retired police captain, reminding New Yorkers in a statement Friday morning that he stood with transit workers in their demands for more officers in the subway. There was Mr. Yang on “Good Morning New York,” opining that the police “are going to drive our ability to improve what’s going on our streets, in the subway.”
There, on the other side of the divide, was Ms. Wiley, at the Clemente Cultural and Educational Center in Manhattan, urging that more social service workers for people with mental illness, not more police officers, be sent underground.
And there was Mr. Stringer, the city comptroller, sounding a similar note in front of the vacant lot in Brownsville, saying that without a comprehensive prescription that included social services and supportive housing, “We will be cycling people from the subways to Rikers,” the city’s jail complex, “back and forth and at a tremendous financial cost.”
With less than six weeks left before the June 22 primary and a crowded field of contenders struggling to define themselves to a distracted electorate, crime, and how to stop it, has emerged as both a dominant public concern and a way for the candidates to score points against each other.
Each day seems to bring a fresh cause for alarm. On Friday, a group of men slashed or punched commuters aboard a moving subway train. The attacks came at the end of a one-week stretch that included the shooting of three bystanders in Times Square, a police officer being shot three times while responding to another shooting and at least a half-dozen other seemingly random subway attacks.
The candidates have clearly felt pressure to address the violence. After the Times Square shooting last Saturday, Mr. Yang, Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuire held news conferences there, even as the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, stayed away.
At the debate, Mr. Adams took Mr. Yang, a former presidential candidate, to task for holding a news conference “blocks from your home” in Times Square but not responding to recent shootings in neighborhoods with large Black populations, like Brownsville. Two other candidates, Shaun Donovan and Kathryn Garcia, responded to the Times Square shooting with plans to get guns off the streets.
In many ways, the campaigning on Friday was a continuation of the previous night’s debate, where the candidates leaned into their sharply different approaches to law enforcement and to the question of whether the city can police its way out of a spike in gun violence.
Ms. Wiley, a former counsel to Mr. de Blasio and civil-rights lawyer, said at the debate that she would take $1 billion from the Police Department and use the money “to create trauma-informed care in our schools, because when we do that violence goes down and graduation rates go up.”
Another candidate, Dianne Morales, who has called for cutting the $6 billion police budget in half, said that “safety is not synonymous with police.” Mr. Stringer and Mr. Donovan have also called for shifting at least $1 billion from the police budget to social services.
Ms. Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner, staked out a middle ground on Thursday, saying, “We do need to respond when the M.T.A. says we need more cops in the subway. That does not mean we’re not sending mental health professionals into the subway as well.”
Mr. Adams and Mr. Yang have opposed “defunding” the police, and on Thursday night Mr. Adams repeated his call for a reinstituted unit of plainclothes police officers to target gang activity in the city.
“We have to deal with intervention,” he said, “and stop the flow of guns into the city,” adding, “We have to deal with this real, pervasive handgun problem.”
In one of the debate’s fiercer exchanges, Ms. Wiley called Mr. Adams an apologist for stop-and-frisk policing. That prompted him to counter that he was actually a “leading voice against the abuse of stop-and-frisk” and that Ms. Wiley had showed a “failure of understanding law enforcement.”
Ms. Wiley retorted that as the former head of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, “I certainly understand misconduct.” Mr. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, hit back, saying that under her, the board was “a failure.”
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Ms. Wiley picked up the thread on Friday, reminding a reporter at her tour outside the Clemente Center that Mr. Adams had called stop-and-frisk a “great tool” just last year. (She called the policy “lazy,” “ineffective” and “traumatizing.”)
Mr. Adams also took flak from Mr. Donovan at the debate for having said that as mayor he would carry a gun.
“As a New Yorker but also as a parent, I’m deeply concerned about the idea of a mayor who carries a gun at a time where gun violence is spiking,” Mr. Donovan, a former city and federal housing official, said.
Mr. Adams replied that he would do so only if the police’s threat assessment unit found that he was the target of “a credible threat.”
On Friday, Ms. Wiley spoke about there being a “false choice between either being safe from crime and being safe from police violence” and promised, “We can have both.”
In an ad released on Friday by a political action committee that supports Mr. Adams, Strong Leadership NYC, Mr. Adams used similar words.
“We can have justice and public safety at the same time,” he says in the ad, adding that after being assaulted by the police as a young man, he became an officer with the goal of reforming the department from within. In his statement on Friday, Mr. Adams called not only for more officers in the subway but for “serious mental health resources.”
Still, there was no question where his emphasis lay: He also called for better monitoring of security cameras and closer coordination between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, and the police.
“Progress cannot be derailed by crime,” Mr. Adams wrote. “If New Yorkers themselves cannot rely on our public transportation to keep them safe, then tourists will not return and not the businesses that depend on them.”