The coverage of police brutality over the last year, both in the mass media and through civilian video footage, has been a wake-up call for many Americans, shining a spotlight on what many communities of color already knew—our policing and criminal justice systems are infused with systemic racial bias.
Thanks to the relentless work of community advocates, the aggressive police tactics that routinely threaten the lives and safety of people of color have garnered unprecedented national attention.
Despite the growing body of evidence on the nature and extent of the problem, the path towards meaningful reform has not been clear, leaving many local leaders at a loss as to how to move forward.
But the actions of local government—mayors in particular—couldn’t be more important. Channeling the current momentum into transformative change will require leadership across local, regional, and federal levels, but mayors are in a unique position to be the vanguard, taking trailblazing steps towards transforming how police departments interact with their communities.
While some have bemoaned a lack of consensus around a roadmap to police reform, those on the ground—community members, organizers, elected officials, police officers and chiefs—raise the concepts of accountability, oversight, community respect, and limiting the scope of policing again and again. Our organizations spent close to a year collecting success stories and insight from communities across the country, from Los Angeles to Cleveland to Baltimore, to create a toolkit for advocates working to end police violence. We identified several common principles that all mayors can—and should—put in place to establish sustainable, community-centered and controlled policing.
Several of these principles have received national attention, such as demilitarizing police departments, providing police recruits with training in racial bias, de-escalation, and conflict mediation, and making police more accountable to communities through civilian oversight bodies and independent investigations of alleged police misconduct. Thanks to the commitment of a proactive mayor, this kind of community accountability is already being put in place in Newark, which just approved a progressive Civilian Complaint Review Board that provides landmark community oversight in a city with a long history of police brutality.
Mayors should also institute policies that scale back over-policing, especially for minor ‘broken-windows’ offenses that criminalize too many communities and burden already-impoverished households with exorbitant fees and fines. Ferguson’s court system became an infamous example, but routine targeting of and profiteering off of low-income communities of color is pervasive throughout the country. Local governments must not only fix broken municipal court systems but should also scale back the tide of criminalization through decriminalizing offenses that have nothing to do with public safety. With the strong support of the mayor, the Minneapolis City Council recently decriminalized two non-violent offenses—spitting and lurking—which had been used to racially profile.
The last piece of the puzzle may be politically controversial, but is absolutely fundamental to transforming our broken systems of policing and criminal justice and supporting safer and stronger communities. Local governments cannot continue to pour ever-increasing sums into city police budgets, while ignoring the most basic needs of residents living in over-policed areas: better schools, job opportunities, access to healthy food, affordable housing, and public transportation. Neighborhoods most afflicted by aggressive policing and high incarceration rates also have high levels of poverty, unemployment, and racial segregation. In many urban neighborhoods where millions of dollars are spent to lock up residents, the education infrastructure and larger social net are completely crippled. Investments to build up vulnerable communities need to be viewed as part of a comprehensive public safety strategy.
Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called for a Department of Justice investigation of the city’s police department only after tragedy struck and the community rose up in protest. It is time for the mayors of this country to instead take a proactive Mayoral Pledge to End Police Violenceto heal the wounds of broken policing and criminal justice policies before another devastating police killing.