For those working to end police violence against people of color, the past weeks have been particularly taxing. In the wake of Derek Chauvin’s conviction for George Floyd’s murder, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot to death by police in Columbus, Ohio, after calling them for help, and Andrew Brown was killed by police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in what a family attorney called “an execution.” Those killings followed that of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was killed by police during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
We have become accustomed to heart-wrenching, relentless news alerts about people of color dying at the hands of police, typically accompanied by expressions of sympathy from public officials. Near the end of the Chauvin trial, Chicago officials released video footage of an officer killing Adam Toledo, a 13 year-old who loved playing with Legos. Prior to the video’s release, police and prosecutors claimed that Adam was an armed threat—a still from the footage shows a frightened boy with empty hands held in the air moments before he was killed. During a press conference, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot appeared shaken, wearily stating: “Simply put, we failed Adam. And we cannot afford to fail one more young person in our city.”
Mayor Lightfoot was right—the cycle of police violence and avoidable deaths is indeed a failure of a system that privileges those with wealth and power and devalues the lives of Black people and other people of color. Mayors are uniquely positioned to upend this system, but rhetoric about change and more resources wasted on police reform will not work. Meaningful change will require a paradigm shift in how mayors think about safety and a commitment to prioritizing a bold direction away from policing.
This matters now, as people look for policies to stop a ceaseless wave of police violence and address our longstanding policing crisis, and as voters around the country decide who should lead their cities. In 2021, roughly one-third of the United States’s largest cities, from New York to Cincinnati to Detroit, will decide mayoral elections, with policing and public safety among the most important issues at stake. As these elections near, voters, advocates, and the media should understand the role of mayors in policing and how mayors can effect change.
The Policy Failures of American Policing
This paradigm shift has already taken place in Black-led movement spaces across the country, stemming from the lived experience of communities who have been disproportionately harmed by police brutality, criminalization, incarceration, and surveillance. Their critical analysis of policing has helped to define the problems that mayors must accept and use their powers to solve. Specifically:
Policing is exorbitantly expensive. According to Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), Chicago spends $1.65 billion annually on policing, 37 percent of its overall budget, and runaway police spending is not exclusive to Chicago. The 2016 Freedom to Thrive report outlined the acceleration of police spending in 10 cities, including New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. These are critical funds that could more effectively increase safety by investing in basic needs like housing, healthy food, education, and job opportunities.
Policing does not prevent violence. Largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects, including school shutdowns, job market collapse, and associated mental stress, the country experienced an increase in community violence in 2020. Reversing this trend will require addressing the root causes of violence (such as providing the basic needs listed above, adequate mental health services, and other economic supports) and investing in community-based violence prevention efforts. Police interventions consistently occur after the incident of violence has already occurred, meaning they are not doing anything to prevent it. Additionally, a New York Times analysis of “call for service” data reveals that, of the reasons people call police, responding to violent incidents is a small fraction of what police do—typically as low as four percent. This analysis also demonstrates that a police response is usually not needed to provide the most-requested services, like responding to minor traffic accidents.
Policing is falsely conflated with safety. Our desire for safety, security, and stability is a basic human need, but police do not actually meet this need for many communities. In fact, police solve just two percent of all major crimes overall. In Chicago, where law enforcement interests routinely cite gun violence to justify aggressive policing, the police solve fewer than half of all homicides, and fewer than 25 percent when the victim is Black. The deep-seated narrative about police—that they are noble guardians who protect us from danger and ensure that justice is served—is a fantasy ingrained from childhood through books, tv shows, and movies. This conflation of policing and safety—coupled with harmful and biased media portrayals of Black, Latinx, and Muslim people as violent outsiders—leads to the wrong conclusion that policing is an essential need that must be fixed rather than replaced, no matter how expensive or unlikely.
Mayors must acknowledge these truths and embrace a shift toward investing in a system that creates safety and security by providing quality healthcare, housing, education, food, and jobs to residents in neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested—a system of support and care that may have not “failed Adam.”
When mayors support tried-and-failed reforms like attempts to diversify departments, build trust between police and community, or train officers on implicit bias, they amplify the problem instead of providing solutions. These and similar reforms do not work. Moreover, they increase funding to police departments that could be used more effectively to address the root causes of harm and violence. The resources for community investments must come from savings accrued through shrinking policing and other elements of the bloated criminal legal system, including jails and prisons, prosecutors, the courts, probation, and parole.
How Mayors Can Create Change
What is the role of mayors in this system? As a city’s chief executive, the mayor is typically responsible for setting the city’s policy priorities and approaches, developing city-wide budgets, hiring and firing police chiefs, and overseeing public employee contract negotiations. To stem the tide of police violence and catalyze a transformative shift, mayors should immediately do the following:
Advance budgets that divest from policing and invest in community. Budget priorities reflect moral choices. Mayors have the special authority to propose and advocate for budgets that reduce the role of policing and increase investment in violence interruption programs, alternatives to policing like community-based mental health responses, and in basic needs that keep communities safe. Although they must go further, promising examples include Mayor London Breed in San Francisco, who last year proposed diverting $120 million in law enforcement funds into programs that support Black communities, and Mayor Melvin Carter in St. Paul, Minnesota, who proposed a nearly $4 million cut to the city’s police department that would reduce the force by 41 officers. As part of their budget development processes, mayors should formalize incorporating perspectives from disinvested communities through participatory budgeting or “People’s Budget” campaigns. Prioritizing community investment also means making tough decisions like not backfilling police budgets with federal COVID-19 relief money or increasing fines to raise revenue.
Negotiate police contracts that facilitate transformation. As a fundamental administrative function of cities, the negotiation of public employee contracts is typically conducted by a city agency or department under mayoral oversight. Police contract negotiations are rare opportunities to decrease the size of police forces and limit excessive police union power. Unlike other public sector worker contracts, police contracts often create barriers to safety and justice under the guise of bargaining for wages, benefits, and working conditions. Even though Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot has recognized some of these considerations, she and other mayors must ensure that contracts reduce police personnel, including allowing layoffs at cities’ discretion, prohibit excessive overtime, and do not contain terms that restrict cities from addressing misconduct. Additionally, negotiations should be transparent and enlist community feedback.
Refuse police association money. Too often, mayors and other elected officials are beholden to police union interests—including opposition to reform—because they receive donations from police associations. Like other lobbying arrangements, this can create clear conflicts of interest when it comes to representing the people and making the right policy choices.
Question police accounts of incidents. When police recount the details of an incident, mayors often accept and repeat those details as the truth. Police are incentivized to avoid responsibility and shift blame, often by mischaracterizing incidents to create, or inflate, a threat or impugning the victim’s character to make it seem like the violence was justified. Mayors have a responsibility to independently assess and relay information from objective sources.
Give new programs the space to try and fail. In the private sector, failure is seen as an important step toward success. Newly established community-based alternatives to policing that aim to reduce violence and respond to emergencies must be given adequate space to fail and improve, including providing sustained funding that is not contingent on immediate success. Such programs include using trained, unarmed experts to respond to emergencies involving drug use or mental health crises, or replacing police with civilians to enforce minor traffic violations. Police reform has failed for generations—even a fraction of that latitude will ensure that pilot programs can test models, pivot as needed, and make an effective impact.
Listen to local, impacted movement leaders. Black community leaders who have called for divestment from policing and investment in basic needs and alternatives live in every city. In Chicago alone, Project Nia, Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100, the Chicago Torture Justice Center, and the Black Abolitionist Network are just a handful of powerful community-based organizations and collectives that have built expertise on this framework over the past decade or longer. Rather than marginalize and ignore these experts, mayors must consult with them and listen to their demands in the shared spirit of improving lives and increasing safety.
After the video of Adam Toledo’s killing was released, Mayor Lightfoot acknowledged that Chicago is “a city that is traumatized by a long history of police violence and misconduct.” But nothing will change through attempts at police reform. Even cities with progressive mayors and reform-minded police chiefs inevitably experience insurmountable barriers, including entrenched departmental cultures, rank-and-file oversight challenges, the infiltration of white nationalists, limitations created by state law, and the political and cultural power of police unions. At its core, however, police reform repeatedly fails because police violence against people of color is a feature of the system, not a bug. The purpose of policing is to protect the inequitable status quo, which, since before the nation’s founding, was built on economic inequality and racial division.
If mayors are serious about ending police violence, they must accept this reality and embrace the challenging, long-term road to transforming our public safety system away from policing and prisons and toward healing and care.