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Boston mayoral race turns to public safety issues

Few detailed plans emerge from 12-candidate field

Some have called for hearings on gun violence or delivered passionate speeches about institutional racism. Others are vowing changes to the city police department.

Propelled by a recent spike in gun violence and a renewed national discussion about racial profiling and violence, public safety has emerged as a central theme in the Boston mayoral race in recent weeks, nudging ahead of other hot-button issues such as education and casinos.

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“It’s becoming more and more of an issue in this race as the candidates see that the people are pressing the issue,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Dorchester, who contemplated his own run for mayor on a platform focused on safer city streets.

“The people want to live in a safe community and they have that right,” he said, adding, “The question that remains is which one of the candidates can give that to them.”

After a spate of violence in the city and the George Zimmerman verdict, many of the candidates have stressed that their election would usher in a renewed focus on combating crime and morphing the Boston Police Department’s brass into a portrait that looks more like the racially diverse neighborhoods they are charged with protecting.

“We can’t be afraid to come together when the situation calls for it,” said Michael P. Ross, a mayoral candidate and chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, after hosting a council hearing on gun violence in Roxbury Wednesday evening. “We all can agree that ensuring the safest possible city has to be a priority for whoever becomes our next mayor.”

To date, however, the rhetoric spouted by the field of candidates has included few details about how the would-be mayors would achieve that goal.

While several have rolled out blueprints for tackling education reform and economic development, none of the candidates so far has unveiled an equally comprehensive plan to tackle public safety.

Most, however, do feature statements about public safety on their websites and some have made specific proposals.

Among those proposals, Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state representative, has called for a new pilot program to forge relationships between youth and police officers; Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley has pledged to push for passage of state legislation he has coauthored that would update gun and wiretapping laws; and City Councilor John R. Connolly has vowed to restart the city’s gun buyback program.

“The next mayor needs a detailed, realistic approach,” Culpepper said. “We need to know how they’re going to actually get it done.”

This mayor’s race in particular has offered a chance for the issues to be at the forefront: It is the first open race since Boston became a majority-minority city and features six candidates of color, and several candidates with years of ground-level experience combating violence.

In addition to Ross’s position atop the council’s public safety committee, Conley has made his record as a prosecutor a central part of his campaign and John F. Barros often notes his work as executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which has been credited with helping revitalize once crime-ridden parts of Roxbury. Charles Clemons, founder of TOUCH 106.1, also once served as a beat cop in Boston.

“One thing I don’t want to let happen is to see the voice of the community fall on deaf ears,” Clemons said.

As candidates have jumped from campaign event to campaign event over the past several months, Boston has experienced one of its most violent stretches in recent years.

In 2012, there were 116 shootings in Boston, 12 of them fatal, between Jan. 1 and July 8. This year, however, that number has risen to 140 shootings, 22 fatal, in the same time period, according to Boston police data provided at Wednesday’s gun safety hearing.

There have been more shootings in the city so far this year than at this point in any other year since 2009, according to the BPD presentation.

And issues of public safety and racial profiling were further thrust to the forefront last weekend, when Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in Florida in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — a verdict that prompted massive protests and sent an echo of outrage about racial profiling and disparities in the legal system ringing across the country.

“The lives of our sons and daughters are not respected,” declared Charles Yancey, a 30-year city councilor who is simultaneously running for reelection and for mayor, as he wielded a microphone at a rally in protest of the Zimmerman verdict that drew hundreds to Dudley Square in Roxbury over the weekend.

Just days later, Golar Richie, the race’s only woman, announced in response to the Zimmerman verdict she will host a youth summit in late July to address joblessness, dropout rates, drug use, and violence among young men of color.

“Many [young men of color] said they felt the verdict signaled that their lives had less value than others,” Richie said in the forum announcement. “Some young people said that too often society views them as the problem, not the solution. This meeting is about problem solving, and engaging our young people to help find solutions.”

The Zimmerman verdict also hung over the room Tuesday night, as more than a hundred voters sat around 12 tables for 8-minute small group discussions with the candidates in the Hibernian Hall auditorium.

As they made their rounds from table to table, each candidate vowed that they were the right person to address Boston’s violence and address a societal structure that deprives racial minorities.

“In the Trayvon Martin case we see a systemic issue,” Barros said in response to a voter’s question about whether an incident similar to the Zimmerman case could happen in Boston. “We need to figure out as a country how we can reform the whole system.”

Wesley Lowery can be reached at Wesley.Lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
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