In May, the public response in the aftermath of the deaths of several Black men and women at the hands of police officers rekindled and intensified the national call for police reform and racial justice. The Conference’s Police Reform and Racial Justice Working Group has produced and is advancing meaningful reforms that mayors and police chiefs across the country can adopt to address police violence and patterns of racial discrimination. Their recommendations, along with the set of principles rooted in the goal of better public safety they developed to shape the police reform framework, were adopted as policy by The United States Conference of Mayors. They take into account the urgent need to address racially-biased practices, as well as concerns that there are public functions that have, for far too long, fallen to police departments by default but that can be better addressed by others.
Mayors and police leaders must meet the moment. Now is the time to renew the compact between people and the police, to restore trust and accountability, to rebuild legitimacy, and to reimagine policing in our country.
While there has been progress in making America’s cities safe, much remains to be done. Although homicides and other violent crimes continue to decrease in some jurisdictions, some cities still grapple with high crime levels, and some have seen an uptick. Firearms account for nearly 40,000 deaths a year and guns are readily available on our streets. Until the pandemic hit, mass shootings had become almost a common occurrence.
While improvements have been made in the criminal justice system, and these are a good first step, much remains to be done to make the system equitable, fair, and accountable.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently reported that the Nation “faces an increasingly complex, and evolving, threat of terrorism and targeted violence,” and that while “foreign terrorist organizations remain intent on striking the Homeland…the Nation also faces a growing threat from domestic actors inspired by violent extremist ideologies, as well as from those whose attacks are not ideologically driven.”
Achieving public safety and justice for all requires decisive actions by mayors and police chiefs in their cities and by the next President and Congress:
A set of principles for policing, attributed to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in England, is often cited as the foundational framework for modern policing in a democracy. They stand for the ideas that the police exist to prevent crime and that the legitimacy of the police derives from public consent and trust. Peel’s Principles state that policing must be based upon a reciprocal relationship of trust between the police and the public. This moment calls for both reaffirming and updating these principles of policing:
- Redefining the Role of Local Police and Public Safety. The current moment calls into question, but also provides a unique opportunity to discuss, the first principles of policing and requires a community conversation on the proper role of police in addressing the needs of residents. Building healthy, safe and vibrant communities requires many other tools than law enforcement alone.
- Trust and Legitimacy. Public approval and acceptance are the basis of effective policing.
The public and police must find common ground on which to trust each other. Police must earn their community’s trust and cooperation, and, in turn, the public must respect officers as faithful guardians of the community who both follow and enforce the law.
- Sanctity of Life. At the core of a police officer’s responsibilities is the duty to protect all human life and physical safety. To ingrain this fundamental principle, use of force policies must clearly state this requirement, with specificity, and require officers to intervene when a fellow officer is using disproportionate or unnecessary force.
- Equality and Due Process. Police conduct must not vary on account of race, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or other status. Every person is entitled to equal treatment, respect for his or her constitutional rights, and due process of law. To ensure equal and just treatment of all persons, departments must provide consistent training on impartial policing, anti-discrimination principles, and cultural literacy.
- Community. Departments must strive for a sincere belief among officers that respectful, constitutional engagement with the community is the most powerful tool they possess, over and above a gun and a badge.
- Transparency and Accountability to Reinforce Constitutional Policing. True police reform will not come about through improved policies and training alone. We must ensure that police fulfill their commitments to protect the residents they serve and that police build trust and legitimacy through transparency, engagement and accountability.