Urban mayors’ police reform report covers familiar ground
One of the frustrations of the flood of reform recommendations is that the public is never informed that these practices are nearly universal in policing
As a beneficiary of the Johnson-era Challenge of Crime in a Free Society report and its subsequent tossing of dollars to law enforcement, the Nixon and Reagan eras’ war on drugs and subsequent tossing of dollars, the Clinton-era COPS money and the Bush-era terrorism money, I was anxious to read the United States Conference of Mayors’ Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice to find out if it is punitive or supportive.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) identifies itself as “the official non-partisan organization representing the 1,400 cities with a population of 30,000 or more.” Its 40-page report released on August 13, 2020 and available in full below, cites core principles of trust, defining roles, the sanctity of life, equality and community.
While the law enforcement community is diverse in its members’ political views and demographics, the majority of officers and police executives do not come from the cities represented by the USCM. The report was developed by a working group headed by Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot with members that include Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison who previously served as Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, among others.
The USCM is described as non-partisan but left-leaning according to watchdog group Influence Watch, which cites the large city mayors group as advocating more gun control, single-payer healthcare and liberalized immigration policy. It also cites the group as a benefactor of financial contributions from labor unions.
The report’s introductory statements are an encouraging diversion from the voices most often heard in media reports on defunding and abolition of police agencies, and indeed what I expected from the mouths of many of these leaders.
The report acknowledges the accountability of our cities' mayors, the historically default response that any and all problems should be handled by law enforcement, the need for training and support of police officers, and the failure of police leadership due to political interference.
The first set of concrete recommendations are also palatable:
- Continue to fund policing while allocating resources to other social services;
- Analyzing data to determine the balance of needs for police response and other agency response;
- Understanding the social services that communities need most;
- Funding to hire properly trained workers.
Whether these recommendations imply additional overall funding or diversion of existing police funding is not clear.
Practices and policies already in place
The “Sanctity of Life” declaration and recommendations are also common sense. They are also common practice and policy in use already within law enforcement. It would have been helpful to express the reality that most agencies practice these guidelines rather than originating from USCM’s invention.
One of the frustrations of the flood of reform recommendations is that the public is never informed that these practices are nearly universal in policing and have been for a long time. But law enforcement successes with these policies have not been reported or commented on since they are of no headline value.
The same is true of the USCM’s statement on “equality and due process” – good ideas that American policing has been implementing increasingly at least since the reform legislation following the 1991 Rodney King arrest at the dawn of the age of ubiquitous video.
The report addresses racism with the general statement: “The history of racism in America, in many places and especially our communities of color, has been a barrier to effective and long-lasting police-community relations.” Whether intentional or not, the implication is that the root of racism lays with law enforcement.
The public has been conditioned in recent weeks to equate the term “systemic racism” with racist policing. A tragedy of many police reform measures is the thinking that a fix here and there with our armed government agents is a fix to racism. The reality is that by the time a police officer intervenes in the life of a marginalized citizen they are only dealing with the fruit of the seeds planted in lesser pre-natal care, lesser access to medical providers, inadequate housing, poorer quality education, fewer job opportunities, subsidized disintegration of the family, and a thousand other prickly discriminations and insults absorbed.
Commonly advocated reforms
The report continues to make unremarkable and commonly advocated reform recommendations which, again, are or have been already addressed by law enforcement agencies as best practice under the headings of “accountability and transparency” and “community.” Under the “subheading of “addressing protests,” the report gets schizophrenic by recommending that “Departments should have policies to minimize the use of provocative and unnecessarily aggressive tactics and equipment, such as riot gear and armored vehicles,” immediately followed by the statement “Departments should plan for the possibility that peaceful protests may turn into unlawful assemblies.” It is a statement hard to read without thinking about many of these mayors’ burning and broken cities.
The report was not as incendiary as I had feared, but not ground-breaking either. As the ancient biblical wise man once said – there is nothing new under the sun.