The United States Conference of Mayors is the official non-partisan organization representing the 1,400 cities with a population of 30,000 or more. Acknowledging the urgent need to reset the relationship between our police and our residents, the Conference formed a Working Group on Police Reform and Racial Justice to focus on real, workable, sustainable recommendations for reforming policing. As leaders of a diverse array of the nation’s cities, we want to seize the moment and bring about lasting change to improve public safety and foster a sense of security in our communities.
We mayors are—justifiably—held accountable for what happens in our cities. Our residents experience directly the pain of both violent crime and unconstitutional policing. In the wake of the recent killing of George Floyd and long-standing concerns about the nature and effects of policing involving Black Americans and other minority residents, we have heard the calls for reform.
Reform and public safety are not mutually exclusive. The two goals can and should complement each other, and we must take steps to further that alignment, achieving better public safety outcomes through cooperation and respect between the police and the community.
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.
Another important step in this journey is reckoning with our de facto public policy choices that have compelled police to take on some roles that are better played by community-based social services providers. This moment compels us to ask, “who should respond,” instead of reflexively sending the police when our residents are in need. These are serious questions that require thoughtful engagement.
We also need to both support our police through better training and supervision and hold accountable those who cross the line, delegitimizing policing. The job of a police officer is often dangerous and difficult, and the vast majority perform to the best of their ability and in good faith. But the improper use of force can affect the perceptions of police everywhere. The wrongful actions of individual officers should not blight the entire profession. However, we cannot ignore that there are police departments with systemic problems and that reform, transparency, and accountability have too often been elusive.
We demand a great deal from the leadership of our police departments, but we do not give those leaders the authority to act commensurate with that responsibility. We have, through collective bargaining agreements and various state laws, divested our chiefs of the ability to enforce the policies they and we announce. If we want action, we need to empower the leadership of our police departments and hold those leaders accountable for delivering the results that our communities want and deserve.
We do not have the luxury of inaction, and we must act now. Our residents rightly demand concrete solutions. Working together, we—mayors, residents, police chiefs, officers, police unions, and community leaders—can meet this urgent challenge and make this agenda a reality.