LAS VEGAS -- In his first campaign ad as a Republican candidate for Nevada governor, Joe Lombardo picks up a badge, a gun and a tactical vest that says “police” while a 911 call plays in the background.
A voiceover says the Las Vegas-area sheriff kept his city safe, “while other communities rioted and burned.”
Detroit Police Chief James Craig, another Republican who has formed an exploratory committee to run for Michigan governor, has a similar message. In his ad, he’s driving through city streets, declaring that “Detroit never burned” in the demonstrations following George Floyd’s killing in 2020.
More than a year after Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis by a white police officer prompted debate over police reform and whether to slash law enforcement funding, the two are among a half-dozen police chiefs and high-ranking law enforcement officers moved to run for higher office to defend the need for public safety.
The first test came in the New York City mayoral race, in which former police officer Eric Adams won the Democratic primary in a large field of candidates. The next test comes Tuesday in Ohio, where state Rep. Jeff LaRe, a former Fairfield County deputy sheriff, has made a pro-law enforcement stand a centerpiece of his campaign in a GOP primary race to fill an open congressional seat.
Across the aisle, Florida Democratic congresswoman Val Demings, who is challenging Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in next year’s Senate race, is a former Orlando police chief who has taken pro-police stances but also sponsored criminal justice reform legislation.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales is a Democrat who has been declaring crime in the city to be out of control as he runs in this year’s nonpartisan mayoral contest, challenging incumbent Tim Keller, a Democrat.
Leading the pack has been Adams, a former New York Police Department captain who won his mayoral primary in June amid an increase in shootings in the city. Adams, who is expected to win the general election in November, made rising violent crime a focus of his campaign.
Like the other candidates with law enforcement backgrounds campaigning for higher office, Adams has been open to policing reforms but made clear he doesn’t approve of some of the most strident calls for change.
Adams has spoken out against police misconduct and founded a group that fought racial profiling in law enforcement and pushed police departments to diversify their ranks. But he has also defended the controversial stop-and-frisk police strategy as a useful tool that has been abused.
Adams and Craig, who are both Black, have made a point to reject the calls from progressive activists to defund the police. Demings, who is also Black, has said she does not support defunding the police but has said there may be better ways to respond to mental health problems and drug misuse than with police.
Supporters have generally used the term “defund the police” to mean shifting money from law enforcement to other programs, such as having social workers respond to nonemergency calls. Some progressives have supported disbanding police departments.
In Nevada, a political swing state with a Democratic governor seeking another term next year, Lombardo has both embraced the phrase and used it as a cudgel against the left as he competes in a Republican primary while running a force of some 5,000 officers in the Las Vegas metro area.
“I’m on the record saying if you want to defund me, I have no problem with that as long as it’s used appropriately in something that would benefit us in the law enforcement space,” Lombardo said in an interview with The Associated Press.
But on his campaign website and Twitter account, Lombardo declares he “will stop all efforts to defund the police” and said, “The GOP is NOT the party of defund the police.” His campaign video decries “liberal politicians” who try to defund the police.
When asked about the mixed messages and if he thinks voters know he supports defunding the police, Lombardo said he drew a distinction between his use of the phrase and the way other activists have used it.
“A lot of time when you talk about defunding the police, people assume it’s just take the money away from the police because they don’t deserve it,” he said. “When I talk about defunding the police, I’m talking about: Give me some resources that supports what we’re trying to do, and I’ll provide some of the funding out of my budget to support that.”
Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, was among the activists and organizers who met with Lombardo during last summer’s protests to discuss the demonstrations and police response. She said he made comments then indicating he was supportive of the defunding the police concept, but she felt his main point was stopping the protests.
“I think he wanted to come across as understanding, but at the same time his officers were brutalizing protesters,” she said. “It seems like he says what he needs to say in front of the audience that needs to hear it.”
Lombardo, who is white, said he believes systemic racism exists in some police departments across the U.S. but not in his own.
He blames rising homicide rates on some social factors related to the pandemic, but he also pointed to criminal justice reforms in the state Capitol in recent years, which included reductions in penalties for some drug and theft crimes. “I believe that crooks don’t see punishment associated with their acts,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed to the rising homicide rates as a sign that Lombardo was “derelict in his duty.”
“Rather than protecting families in Southern Nevada, he’s touring the state asking for a promotion,” said Molly Forgey, a spokesperson for Nevada Democratic Victory.
Chris Burbank, the former police chief of Salt Lake City, said it’s a mistake to give police chiefs too much credit or blame for crime rates when the state of the economy, poverty, health care access and jobs have a much bigger impact.
Burbank, who is now the vice president of law enforcement strategy for the Center for Policing Equity, said sheriffs and chiefs running for higher office should be scrutinized for how they responded to demonstrations or rioting in their cities last year and whether they have the public's trust and confidence.
Lombardo and Craig have been touting their responses to the protests and contrasting their cities with places where peaceful protests were accompanied by violent clashes, vandalism and some burned buildings. But both chiefs have been dogged by lingering criticism of their departments’ responses last summer, which included the use of tear gas and large-scale arrests that demonstrators and legal observers said were unjustified and carried out with excessive force.
When Lombardo appeared at a recent panel on policing put on by the Las Vegas-area NAACP, he was repeatedly interrupted by audience members wearing T-shirts that read “Justice for Jorge Gomez,” a 25-year-old man who was fatally shot by police at a demonstration after Floyd’s killing.
Police said Gomez carried guns and wore body armor, and the Democratic district attorney declared the officers who shot Gomez would not face charges. But the man’s family has called for police to be held accountable for his death, and a federal wrongful death lawsuit is pending.
Lombardo was asked what he would say to people who have concerns about bad actors in the department.
“I would want them to have trust in me as your sheriff" to investigate any allegation of improper force and to hold people accountable, he said.
He said the number of people who have been disciplined in his department has increased exponentially over the past five years “because we’re paying attention and we’re holding them accountable. And eventually that will change behavior.”
Someone in the audience shouted: “But why do they keep killing people?”
Associated Press writers Julie Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and David Eggert in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.