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Facing the ‘defund the police’ movement, mayors launch national reform group

Three mayors and three chiefs seek alternatives to disbanding departments

Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot (D) has signed on to help the nation's mayors find ways to reform police departments. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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With public anxiety still rising about the need to curb police brutality, the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Monday launched a police reform and racial justice working group to devise recommendations on policing and “to help end the injustices facing black Americans.”

The mayors of Chicago, Tampa and Cincinnati were named to the group, along with the police chiefs of Baltimore, Phoenix and Columbia, S.C. Former D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey and the former executive director of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing will also participate, the mayors said in a news release. No officers groups or police unions were listed as participants.

The working group arises as cities and counties are facing growing pressure from those calling to “defund the police.” In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed in police custody last month, city council members have said they will begin the process of dismantling their police department.

The words “defund the police” are not in the mayors’ news release. Instead, the mayors and police chiefs said they have a “goal of releasing actionable recommendations in the coming weeks.”

Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said that he proposed the working group before the “defund the police” movement gained steam last weekend and that it was not a motivation. He said the mayors’ group had worked closely with the Major Cities Chiefs Association in past years to implement the recommendations of the 21st-century policing task force, and that after the most violent protests erupted, he pushed the two groups to get those proposals “back on the agenda. We have seen some implementation of the Obama task force, but we’re not there yet,” Cochran said.

The task force called for greatly improved police-community relations, greater transparency and police accountability, and updating of police policies on use of force.

“The nation’s mayors are committed to dismantling the systemic racism that exists in our country,” said Bryan K. Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, Mich., and president of the mayors’ conference. “The recent killings of innocent black people have highlighted once again that there is much work to do with revising and improving the policies and practices of our police departments. We must do better, and we must start this work immediately.”

While many efforts at police reform have been directed at law enforcement executives, some have noted that mayors, county executives and other elected officials have been the ones who have negotiated labor agreements or enacted rules and laws that critics say have hamstrung police reform.

Union contracts sometimes prohibit chiefs from taking quick action against troublesome officers, and police officers’ bills of rights have been written into state or county laws that provide for extensive due process proceedings for officers and have often returned such officers to the streets over police chiefs’ objections. Civilian oversight of police in some places is minimal or missing altogether.

The police chief in Tucson tweeted this earlier today:

“This is about generational discrimination in our communities,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot (D), “and police accountability is a crucial part of the work that needs to be done to address this issue in a holistic manner.”

“We are at a moment where we can instill real change with police reform,” Ramsey said in the news release. He said Floyd’s killing “has galvanized the nation and the calls from citizens and police chiefs alike to address long-standing racial injustice gives me great hope that progress can be made. Mayors and police chiefs have an opportunity now to redouble their efforts to develop law enforcement policies that will save lives and strengthen the public trust.”

In addition to Lightfoot, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, both Democrats, are members of the working group. Castor is a former police chief and 31-year veteran of the Tampa police.

On the police side, Chief Michael Harrison of Baltimore, Chief Jeri Williams of Phoenix and Chief W.H. “Skip” Holbrook of Columbia are members. In addition to Ramsey, former 21st-century policing task force director Ron Davis will assist. He is the former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and former police chief of East Palo Alto, Calif. Cochran, the executive director of the mayors’ conference, also will serve. Cochran said he hopes to have the recommendations done by July 1.

This post has been updated.