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These lifelong Democrats lost loved ones to shootings. They don’t trust the party to fix it.

Crime and policing are taking centerstage for a lot of voters in this year’s elections, as both parties fight to prove who will make communities safer.

CLEVELAND — For two lifelong Democrats mourning the deaths of loved ones killed in shootings here, the top priorities in this year’s midterm elections come down to two things: crime and policing. And that has them both questioning their support for the party.

Erica Ingram, whose 24-year-old son, Rakeem, was shot to death in 2019 just steps from her front door, is fed up with not having answers about his murder. She believes the spike in crime in her city is overwhelming police and leading them not to call her back when she reaches out for updates.

“In, Cleveland, I know it’s back-to-back murders, and my son is basically a cold case now,” she said. “It’s crazy. He got shot in the afternoon and somebody got shot that same night. So it’s like it’s continuous, continuous, continuous. And it’s like OK, when are we going to start solving something?”

The frustration of pleading with police for updates and answers about her son has led her to rule out voting for Democrats this cycle. Instead, for the first time in her life, she is leaning strongly toward voting for Republicans, including Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who she says best reflects her anger.

“I can see him having compassion as to where the Democrats don’t have no compassion,” she said. “They’re, like, weak. They don’t fight hard enough as to where the Republicans get up there and they pull out all stops.”

Across town, Brenda Bickerstaff is also frustrated with Democrats, though for a different reason. Her brother, Craig, was shot to death by police in 2002, and since then she has become an advocate for police accountability and civilian oversight. She is worried that Democrats who are promising to be tough on crime, including President Joe Biden and Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running against Vance, are doing so to get votes and using rhetoric that will lead to more police violence directed at Black people and people of color.

“I’m very disappointed with the Democratic Party,” Bickerstaff said. “When I hear tough on crime, I’m like, OK, they’re going to start violating people’s Fourth Amendment rights. That’s what’s going to happen. People are going to get pulled over unlawfully for no reason so they can put a case on them or create a case for them. That’s the problem.”

Craig Bickerstaff was shot to death by police in 2002.
Craig Bickerstaff was shot to death by police in 2002.Courtesy Brenda Bickerstaff

Together, these two women illustrate just how much concerns about crime and policing are taking center stage this election cycle as cities across the country are dealing with spikes in homicide rates and violence. From Nevada to Wisconsin to Ohio, both political parties are battling it out to convince voters that they will keep communities safe.

On one side, Republicans are spending millions to paint Democrats as soft on crime and trying to tie the party to the “defund the police” movement. On the other, High-profile Democrats, who pushed hard to try to pass policing overhauls after the murder of George Floyd by officers in Minnesota two years ago, are now talking more about pouring resources into law enforcement and echoing the calls of Republicans to take crime more seriously.

Democratic Ohio Senate Candidate Tim Ryan Campaigns Ahead Of Tuesday's Primary
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, talks with supporters during a rally in Lorain on May 2.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

In Ohio, several cities are struggling to deal with an increase in homicides. Columbus set a record with 175 murders in 2020, according to the city’s police department, only to break that record a year later in 2021 with 204 homicides. According to the Cleveland Police Department, the city had 179 murders in 2020, its most ever, and then its second-most in 2021, with 165 murders.

With voters on edge, Vance has been hammering Ryan for voting for the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, a police reform bill that failed to pass because of Republican opposition in the Senate. In response, Ryan has been highlighting his support for law enforcement and his record on bringing money into policing.

“J.D. Vance can flap his gums all he wants and they [Republicans] can make accusations all they want, but look at the record,” Ryan told NBC News in an interview. “I’ve got a 20-year record and have brought back half a billion dollars for law enforcement here in Ohio.”

To make his case even clearer, Ryan recently released an ad featuring Stark County Sheriff George T. Maier saying, “Tim Ryan knows that defunding the police is ridiculous. He’s brought back $467 million to put good cops on the street.”

Ryan has also sought to paint Vance as wanting to take resources away from officers. “In the middle of all of this crime and insecurity in our communities, J.D. Vance wants to abolish Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the federal agency that helps local police departments and sheriff’s departments solve crimes and prevent crimes,” he said. “That is an extreme position and every Ohioan’s going to know that that’s his position.”

Vance defended wanting to do away with the ATF, telling NBC News that it has become too political and too focused on “law-abiding citizens” rather than crime.

“The ATF has got so politicized and focused on problems that are not part of its core competency,” Vance said. “I think you have to replace it. But I think it’s sometimes these federal bureaucracies, when they stopped doing their job, it’s sometimes easier to get rid of them and replace them rather than trying to reform them.”

Image: JD Vance
Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance speaks at a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23 in Ohio. Joe Maiorana / AP

Republicans, though, are spending millions of dollars in television advertisements blaming Democrats for violent crime as well as record-high inflation and gas prices.

And in an interview with NBC News, Vance said Ryan can’t be trusted to keep communities safe.

“Tim Ryan’s record is the guy who supported ‘defund the police,’ who called police systemically racist and called them the new Jim Crow,” Vance said. (Ryan referred to the criminal justice system, not police, as the new Jim Crow in 2019).

When asked what his message was for voters worried that getting tough on crime would lead to police brutality and racial profiling, Vance said that is a “false choice.”

“You don’t have to choose between good community policing and being tough on crime. In fact, I think they actually work together,” he said. “I think that you can be very tough on the violent criminals without having some of the other problems that people are worried about. And frankly, if you’re a little bit more aggressive with the truly violent criminals, you make the community safer, you increase trust between police and community. That’s a good thing.”

Still, as the two parties battle it out, both Ingram and Bickerstaff are left worrying whether their concerns will be taken seriously. 

Everyday, Ingram walks past the spot where her son’s body lay in the street for hours as authorities processed the scene. She’s constructed a makeshift memorial at a nearby pole and says she won’t feel safe until his murderer is caught and the shootings that keep her up at night dissipate.

A poster memorializing Rakeem Ingram.
A poster memorializing Rakeem Ingram.NBC News

“That first year walking past this pole, I would cry. I cried so hard. I was choking,” she said. “Now, it’s like you literally, you have to dissect fireworks from gunshot wounds. And, I stay right down the street from a trauma hospital so it’s like, sometimes, when I hear the ambulance, I have to grit my teeth because I’m like, oh, man, somebody else got shot. And then it’s like, you wake up in the middle of the night and you might see somebody got killed.”

Bickerstaff has a blunt message for Democrats as she hopes they learn to balance preventing both police brutality and neighborhood shootings.

“Quit playing games,” she said. “Either you’re for the restructure and reform or you’re not. Don’t straddle the fence because you want a vote. Do we have crime? Yes. Crime needs to be dealt with, just like accountability. But don’t make this person be accountable for a crime they didn’t commit, because you’re trying to clear a case.”