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Feuding With Donald Trump Is Not Police Reform

Mayors of liberal cities love to criticize the president’s incendiary law-and-order rhetoric, but do precious little to check police violence and bloated budgets in their own backyards.

President Donald Trump leaves the White House on foot to go to St. John’s Episcopal church across from Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1.(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

This summer, while platoons of heavily armed federal law enforcement officers flooded American cities to crack down on protests of police violence, Democratic mayors jumped at the chance to condemn the Trump administration’s unwelcome disturbances of the peace. Strangely, these same mayors have been unable to muster the same sense of outrage over abuses committed by cops in their own cities, and reliably sidestep opportunities to overhaul a system that shields police from accountability at every turn.

“President Trump has used our city as a staging ground to further his political agenda, igniting his base to cause further divisiveness,” said Ted Wheeler, mayor of Portland, Oregon, in July, as cable news networks looped dystopian footage of cops marching through the streets. “Mr. President, federal agencies should never be used as your own personal army.”

After Trump ignored this earnest request to recall his secret police force, Wheeler began pitching himself as a sort of progressive champion who stands diametrically opposed to the president’s brand of creeping authoritarianism. When Trump mused about sending in even more troops to the city to “STOP THE RIOTS,” Wheeler publicly and defiantly declined the offer. “We don’t need your politics of division and demagoguery,” he wrote in a letter posted on his Twitter account. “We are focused on coming together as a community to solve the serious challenges we face due to systemic racism, a global pandemic and an economic recession.”

This claim largely came as news to Wheeler’s constituents, though, who were being brutalized by Portland Police Bureau officers long before Trump decided to get involved. As demonstrators protested the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Portland’s police fueled the violence that ensued, beating and shooting projectiles at protesters, journalists, and legal observers alike. Wheeler, who serves as both mayor and police commissioner, quickly earned the nickname of “Tear Gas Teddy” for his subordinates’ apparent inability to stop deploying weapons of war. He has defied calls for him to resign, and said he won’t reconsider his leadership of the police until, at the earliest, after his re-election bid this fall.

At least some observers have caught more than a whiff of political expediency in the mayor’s rhetoric. “If it’s about Ted Wheeler’s management of the protests, you know, he’s in a difficult position,” pollster John Horvick told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “But if it’s about what the president is doing to Portland and he can be seen as standing up to the president, I just think that’s a much stronger position for him to be in.”

Wheeler is just one of several liberal leaders of blue cities to recently excoriate Trump for his anti-democratic stunts while doing little about the terror inflicted by law enforcement in their backyards. The precise contours of mayoral authority obviously vary, but in general, mayors wield a great deal of power to propose and amend budget requests, and to use that process to set the city’s priorities, says Yucel Ors, legislative director for public safety and crime prevention at the National League of Cities. Although they are rarely involved in day-to-day agency administration, they can typically hire and fire high-ranking officials—like, say, police chiefs—and hold them accountable for what happens on their watch. 

The soft power that mayors wield can be just as significant, since the office lends them a bully pulpit they can use to call for reforms, criticize misconduct, and otherwise send a message about how they intend to lead. “Mayors can bring together key stakeholders to really look at how policing is happening in their communities,” Ors says, and “work with the police chief to hopefully make changes to local policing to address those concerns.”

A few hours north of Portland, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is failing that test. When the president directed his ire at her city, she responded with a line carefully calibrated for social media virality. “Go back to your bunker,” she tweeted, a winking reference to reports that Trump took shelter in the White House bunker during protests in Washington, D.C. “Make us all safe.” After the president threatened to withhold federal funds from Seattle unless it addressed the anarchist insurgency he imagined was underway, Durkan responded, “The only anarchy zone in America, where the rule of law is disregarded, is at the White House.”

This posturing earned Durkan a national media spotlight of her own. “We don’t need the help that the president’s offering,” she told CNN in late July. “In fact, I think the president’s actions have directly escalated and were responsible for what happened.” 

But the mayor’s words here could easily apply to her own leadership. The Seattle Police Department has long been subject to a federal consent decree related to its use of force, which Durkan herself helped negotiate when she was a federal prosecutor. In May, though, she and the city asked to get out of the bulk of the agreement’s obligations, asserting that the police department had since “transformed itself.

After unsettling images surfaced of Seattle police concealing their badge numbers with black tape at protests, Durkan explained that they were doing so to honor officers killed in the line of duty. (As noted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, given that the last death of an on-duty city police officer took place in 2009, this claim feels more than a little dubious.) She vetoed a City Council budget that made limited cuts to the police budget, and curtly dismissed more ambitious defunding proposals as “irresponsible.” (Even so, the police chief quit in August, and the council overrode Durkan’s veto last week.) Her proposal for 2021 includes a modest reduction to the police budget, and no provisions for officer layoffs. After her 30-day tear gas “moratorium” ended after two days, she, too, earned the “Tear Gas Jenny” moniker from locals fed up with her chronic inefficacy. (Colloquial names of chemical weapons are an alarmingly common thing to append to the names of mayors these days.)

In Washington, D.C., when Trump accused the Metropolitan Police Department of failing to help the Secret Service respond to protests, Mayor Muriel Bowser eagerly leaped to the agency’s defense. “My police department will always protect DC and all who are in it,” she declared on Twitter, labeling Trump a “scared man” who “hides behind his fence afraid/alone.” After mounted federal police tear-gassed protesters near the White House a few days later, Bowser earned a fresh round of breathless accolades for having city employees paint “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on 16th Street, directly to the north of the protest site in Lafayette Square. 

Trump subsequently escalated the feud by lashing out at Bowser at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which in turn led to the mayor proudly proclaiming that she was “living in his head”—and, she added, “apparently there’s a lot of empty room in there.”

Bowser’s leadership on policing, however, does not extend very far beyond social media dunks. The Metropolitan police denied taking part in the violence in Lafayette Square, but video footage shows officers helping to clear protesters just beyond the federal barrier. Agency personnel supported other law enforcement officers elsewhere in the city, and at one demonstration supplied Secret Service agents with extra gear. Bowser had also criticized demonstrators whom she characterized as “bent on destruction,” and asserted that she and police Chief Peter Newsham were “very focused on maintaining public order.” 

The protests notwithstanding, Bowser also refused to budge on calls to slash the police department’s funding. “Not at all,” she told NPR, when asked if she had reconsidered her proposal to expand the department’s budget by about 3 percent. “We fund the police at the level that we need it funded.” Local activists modified her street art exhibition with a “DEFUND THE POLICE” message of their own, making clear that they do not view yellow paint on asphalt to be a sufficient mayoral response to a public safety crisis.

In Chicago, a perennial target of Trump’s dog-whistle politics, the relative success of the progressive prosecutor movement has thrown this dynamic into even sharper relief. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a member of a national mayoral working group on police reform and racial justice issues, was quick to coyly denounce Trump’s calls for the summary executions of protesters in the streets. “I will code what I really want to say to Donald Trump,” she said in May. “It’s two words: It begins with F and it ends with U.” 

But in the wake of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s decision not to press charges against people accused of certain protest-related offenses, Lightfoot—herself a former prosecutor—criticized her counterpart’s approach. “These people need to be held accountable and not cycled through the system,” she said. A police official gleefully echoed this sentiment, asserting that people were “emboldened” to break the law because they knew they’d face “no consequences” from Foxx’s office. While the person in charge of prosecuting crimes is issuing levelheaded calls for restraint, the city’s chief executive is parroting cop talking points and condemning police brutality and looting in the same breath.

Lightfoot has also done little to address the myriad abuses perpetrated by the Chicago Police Department, which is among the most notoriously violent law enforcement agencies in the country. After she declared a curfew that lasted just over a week, roughly three-quarters of the more than 400 people police initially arrested for violating it were Black. Lightfoot has resisted calls to slash the department’s budget, condescendingly dismissing the burgeoning defund movement as a “nice hashtag.” She even agreed to Trump’s proposal to deploy some 200 federal agents to Chicago, just days after reassuring residents that “under no circumstances” would she tolerate such an incursion on the city’s authority to govern itself.

Over the last several years, a consensus around the need to overhaul America’s criminal legal system has led to a wave of prosecutors elected on pledges to do things like fight mass incarceration and end the criminalization of poverty. But a robust analog has yet to emerge for progressive, reform-minded mayors, whose views on crime and punishment still tend to align far more closely with law enforcement types than with the people they oppress. 

To be fair, this may have more to do with accumulated conventional wisdom about the appeal of tough-on-crime politics than anything else. But this national outpouring of grief and anger has cast a pretty unforgiving spotlight on the failures of elected officials to hold cops accountable, and with increasing frequency, people expect more of their leaders than tepid “reforms” and unity-adjacent platitudes. The results in places like Minneapolis, where a majority of city councillors moved to replace the police department with community-led public safety initiatives, have already demonstrated the importance of reading the room. The results in places like Seattle, where Durkan is staring down a recall campaign, demonstrate the consequences of being unwilling or unable to follow suit.

Right now, it’s easy for mayors of left-leaning cities to situate themselves opposite Trump’s cartoon-villain proto-fascism, and it can certainly be rewarding to embrace the ensuing media adulation en route to latter-day #Resistance hero status. For a few days, Bowser’s performance even earned her attention as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which, from a career development perspective, would have made her art project quite the savvy investment of public resources.

For these mayors, however, waging social media zinger wars with the commander-in-chief quietly serves as a convenient distraction from what actually matters: their failures to use their power to stop cops from harassing, brutalizing, and killing people in the street. Firing police chiefs, unequivocally condemning brutality, championing reforms, pushing for budget cuts, and not qualifying affirmations that Black lives matter by solemnly noting that Starbucks windows matter, too, are all acts that require moral and political courage. So far, their grandiose rhetoric has yet to yield much beyond a bumper crop of retweets.

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.