Jun 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Mayors' job: restoring trust

Illustration of a dove with an olive branch sitting on a sign that reads City Hall

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Mayors across the country are vocally condemning the police killing of George Floyd, marching with protesters in their streets and outlining concrete steps to address the systemic racism that still plagues U.S. communities.

Why it matters: De-escalating the violence that's erupted amid protests is only the start of rebuilding a constructive relationship between the public and local law enforcement. And mayors are in a unique position to do that, given their close relationships with both.

  • Mayors tell Axios that concrete steps have to be taken to not only curb police brutality, but to also address the underlying discrimination that people of color face every day.

"The process of building trust is never finished," said St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Melvin Carter, the son of a police officer. "We have to continue to earn it every day."

  • He acknowledged the trauma of Floyd's death and a pervasive culture that has not held all the officers involved accountable. "We have real deep and critical soul searching work to do as a country to stop this from happening over and over and over again like we have seen it happen."
  • He said St. Paul's police chief, Todd Axtell, is focused on building community relationships and ensuring officers' actions are "reasonable, necessary and responsible."

What’s happening: Some mayors took quick action after major missteps by their police departments during protests.

  • Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer swiftly fired the city’s police chief after officers fatally shot black business owner David McAtee while they had their body cameras turned off.
  • Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the firings of two police officers who used excessive force in the arrest of two young African Americans during curfew.
  • Richmond, Va., Mayor Levar Stoney apologized after police fired tear gas at peaceful protesters before curfew, tweeting that “words cannot restore the trust broken this evening. Only action. Only action will repair this community…I want to say sorry. I want to listen.”

Others have committed to holding police accountable.

  • Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged to vigorously investigate all complaints of police misconduct.
  • Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he’ll be reviewing all police communications after a clash with protesters to make sure everything was done by the books. He tweeted that he would put together "a broad coalition of Pittsburgh leaders to address local racism, disparity and the effects of urban poverty on a constant basis."

Separately, former President Obama called for mayors, city councils and police oversight bodies to review and reform police use of force policies in their communities.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, the city's former police chief, marched with protesters on Saturday. Officers were on hand to provide a safe space for people to express themselves, she said. But when the sun set, agitators lit explosives, burned buildings and threw rocks at police officers.

  • "I've seen a lot of civil unrest, but nothing to that level," Castor told Axios. "When anything happens in a community, law enforcement is the most visible arm of government...and they are the unfortunate target of pent-up frustration and anger."
  • Castor is well aware of the long-standing barriers and inequities faced by African American and Latinx communities. Since taking office last year,, she's established task forces to address disparities in education, transportation, housing and workforce development.
  • Castor, who served 31 years at Tampa's police department, said the police force has a good relationship "built on trust" with the community. "It's a relationship we work on every day," she said.

Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas answered protesters' questions, marched with them up Main Street, gave out his cell phone number, and took a knee in a moment of silence with police chief Rick Smith at a downtown gathering.

"I think what this moment is calling for is de-escalation — not just in protests, but in every interaction between black individuals and the police," said Lucas, who's experienced racial profiling throughout his life.

  • In conversations with Smith, Lucas has emphasized the need for police to look less like an outside militaristic force.
  • "Do we need tear gas? Do we need the same number of officers standing so close to protesters, and therefore becoming a focus point of anger? Every time tear gas is deployed, it escalates anew."

Newport News, Va., Mayor McKinley Price said he's visiting church services and events — "wherever I'm invited" — to hear what people are feeling. The police department held a six-hour online chat to take questions and comments.

  • He said he and his police chief Steve Drew see eye-to-eye on the importance of "true community policing" and, when hiring and promoting officers, focusing on equal justice and forming relationships with youth before something goes wrong.
  • "If the first time you engage with a black teenager is to question him, that's a big part of the problem right there," he said.

Price — newly elected president of the African American Mayors Association — said black mayors across the country are encouraging communities of color to use tools they already have to make their voices heard.

  • Those tools include ensuring that people of color, who are often significantly undercounted, are counted in this year's census — so communities receive the necessary funds for programs like police training. They also include turning out to the polls to vote for candidates pushing for change, Price said.

In St. Paul, Carter has overseen an exhaustive review of the police department's use-of-force policy after a months-long conversation with the public. Going forward, he said the focus should be on changing racist elements in laws, city charters, local and state policies and court precedents.

  • "There are police contracts all over the country that are laced to barriers to holding police officers accountable when a life like George Floyd's is so wrongfully taken," Carter said. "All the folks who are on fire right now, let's channel this energy toward changing that."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to spell Quinton Lucas' name correctly.

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