National mayors group calls for change in policing

Will city leaders step up to do the hard work?

ANY REFORM OF police policies and practices in the US will happen municipality by municipality. It’s in the nature of locally-controlled police governance in our country. So when the leading association of big city mayors releases a police reform agenda, it has the potential to be influential. The US Conference of Mayors recently published “Police Reform and Racial Justice,” a practical program of reform that would make American policing more effective, more equitable, and more aligned with communities in several critical areas.

US policing has been decentralized from the beginning. Americans mistrusted centralized authority, codifying their skepticism in the 10th Amendment, which delegates much authority to the states. While “defund” the police sounds radical to many today, in the mid-19th century creating citywide departments was the radical act. In 1853, even as the Legislature authorized Boston to form a full-time, professional police service, Mayor Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith worried that it might be “unsafe” to put a large body of police under the control of one person.

No one knows for sure how many local police departments exist in the US. The best estimate – 12,300 — comes from a survey by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Unlike our counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, municipal policing in the US is not overseen by a national governing structure, or even a regional structure, for police. State legislatures can enact controls such as licensure, which will have some effect. As a practical matter, the US Supreme Court serves as the closest thing we have to a national police commission. They make broad policy by ruling on the constitutionality of police practices.

As a professional association, the US Conference of Mayors can’t require reforms, but it has served as a progressive leadership organization since its founding to advocate for the urban poor at the start of the Depression. The group represents the approximately 1,400 US cities with populations over 30,000.

Boston has been well represented in the organization’s leadership over the years. James Michael Curley served as its second president and mayors John Hynes (1955-57), Ray Flynn (1992), and Tom Menino (2003) served in that position as well. Mayor Martin Walsh is an active member and co-chairs the group’s task forces on urban economic development and substance abuse and recovery.

At this time of national reckoning on issues of race and justice, the mayors have assembled a package of ideas and initiatives that would push forward just and equitable policing in an environment of safety for all. It is a call for historic change. The big question is, will member executives have the courage and stamina to do the hard work required to make long-term, strategic change?

Six principles frame the mayors’ recommendations, in six critical areas of policy and operations.

1.     Trust and Legitimacy

2.     Redefining the Role of Local Police and Public Safety

3.     Sanctity of Life

4.     Equality and Due Process

5.     Community

6.     Transparency and Accountability to Reinforce Constitutional Policing

Though listed third, the proposal with the greatest potential for impact is the section entitled “Sanctity of Life.”  Of it, the mayors wrote:

“At the core of a police officer’s responsibilities is the duty to protect human life and physical safety. Department policies, training, operations, and priorities must start from that premise.”

Protecting human life means safeguarding everyone to the extent humanly possible. That means police officers and suspects, too. If at all possible, everyone leaves the encounter alive. This principle requires rethinking of basic strategy. We should rethink the language, too. In place of a policy on “force” we should have a comprehensive policy of “harm management.”

“Use of force” policy conditions officers to assume they will use force. Boston and Massachusetts officers generally are restrained in their use of deadly force. In other regions, especially the South and West, we have seen a different story. The worst expression is the “warrior training” that many Minneapolis officers underwent, some reportedly financed by their union. Warrior training teaches officers to shoot at the first stirring of threat. When we factor in the well-documented reality that white people unconsciously view all black men as threats, tragedy ensues.

In the killing of George Floyd we saw every moral and legal failure available to humankind in nine agonizing minutes. We have seen the deaths of fleeing felons, in contravention of constitutional case law. It is not enough for police and municipal leaders to say “that has not happened in my city.” When video moves in minutes around the world, police in every community answer for the wrongs in any community. We must accept reality. To change it, create strategy based on the goal of preventing and reducing harm; the outliers would stand out in broader relief. And reform would be not just the right thing to do, but also the way to do the thing right.

The conference of mayors would offer an epochal service to our country even if all it achieved were widespread acceptance and adoption of the following assertion, offered in their report’s introduction:

“We must acknowledge the failures of our current system as well as our country’s history of racism in policing and its impacts on communities of color. An important step is understanding that the challenges in policing we are experiencing now are borne of decades of our encouragement and support for a ‘law enforcement first and only’ approach to public safety that devolved into a militarized and aggressive policing model. This, in turn, resulted in deepening historic divides, particularly between police and communities of color and other marginalized individuals and populations. By acknowledging this past, we can be effective in addressing inequalities in how we police and ensuring that police treat those they serve with fairness and respect.”

Just consider how much progress we could make if US city governments – and their police departments as the most important of municipal services – integrated the following idea into their routine thinking and practice:

“Animating all of our recommendations is the fundamental principle of Trust and Legitimacy: that the public must have a reason to trust the police, as public approval and acceptance are the basis of effective policing. The police serve the public interest and must earn public trust and legitimacy by acting as faithful guardians of the community who work to prevent crime and promote safety.”

Meet the Author
The mayors of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Tampa, along with police executives from Baltimore, Phoenix, and Columbia, South Carolina, who made up the report task force, have created a sound program. In the end, the reform we need must come about from genuine and long-term engagement between the police service and communities. The mayors’ report creates a workable framework for that effort.

Jim Jordan is the former director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department and has taught policing courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.