Jun 4, 2020

Axios Cities

By Kim Hart
Kim Hart

Among the multiple crises we're facing at once, cities are struggling to contain the social unrest, the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent economic collapse, all of which have disproportionately hurt people of color.

📆 Tomorrow: Axios will host a conversation on the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on policymaking from the state to national level. 

  • Join Axios executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo and politics and White House editor Margaret Talev on Friday, June 5, at 12:30pm ET for conversations with Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, Melvin Carter and president and CEO of the NAACP Derrick Johnson. Register here.

Today's edition is 1,714 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Mayors restoring trust

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Mayors across the country are vocally condemning the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, 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 building a constructive relationship between the public and local law enforcement.

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

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

  • Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer swiftly fired the city’s police chief after officers had their body cameras turned off while they fatally shot black business owner David McAtee.
  • Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the firing of two police officers who used excessive force in the arrest of two young African Americans during curfew.
  • Richmond, Virginia, Mayor Levar Stoney apologized after police fired tear gas at peaceful protesters before curfew.

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."

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

  • 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, Virginia, 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.

  • Price, the 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, he 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."

Read the full story.

2. The other crisis: Budget woes worsen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Cities were already furloughing workers and considering cutting back essential services — including public safety — because of the dramatic drops in the local tax revenue that funds them. Now they're also dealing with turmoil in their streets.

Why it matters: "Unfortunately, the increasing levels of social unrest across the country reallocated efforts and scarce resources away from the former focus of getting state, regional and local economies back to some semblance of normalcy," per Tom Kozlik, head of municipal strategy and credit at HilltopSecurities.

  • "Virus-related safety and health concerns are likely to begin to heighten, especially if the lack of social distancing in recent days causes COVID-19 cases to escalate," he wrote in an analyst note. "This could be another obstacle to the reopening process."

The big picture: The overall budget shortfall for cities, towns and villages is expected to top $360 billion between 2020 and 2022, according to a May National League of Cities analysis. The Upjohn Institute projects a roughly $900 billion shortfall for state and local governments through the end of 2021.

Where it stands: Washington leaders are still far away from passing the next coronavirus relief package, as congressional Republicans and Trump administration officials say they must wait to evaluate the economic impact of the CARES Act and reopening before passing another large stimulus package, per Axios' Alayna Treene.

  • Senate Majority Whip John Thune said this week that the next round of funding isn’t expected until July.
  • Mitch McConnell recently told President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that he wants the phase four bill to be narrow in scope and focus on short-term economic relief, not longer-term recovery.
  • A top priority for GOP lawmakers is for the bill to include incentives for people to get back to work, as well as liability protection for businesses that are reopening. 

City leaders are increasingly frustrated that Congress has not stepped in to provide more relief directly to cities, and states are slashing budgets.

"Trump is going around saying police can make cities safer. But you know what isn't going to make cities safer is laying off police officers and firefighters," said Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. "Even if Cincinnati can weather the storm, if my neighbor has to lay off cops, it's going to impact my town."

  • Cincinnati, which is expecting a deficit of $80 million for the fiscal year, furloughed 1,700 employees and hopes to bring them all back July 1.

"Our budgets are gutted," said Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas. "No mayor knows how bad it's going to get. Everything is on the table when it comes to cuts, and that means public safety, too."

What's next: Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration have said the House-passed, $3 trillion Heroes Act is a nonstarter.

  • The likely pathway is, once GOP lawmakers feel they have properly evaluated the impact of the legislation they've already passed, they will draft their own bill. They will then negotiate that version with Democrats.
3. What they're saying

A protester faces off with police in Ferguson, Missouri, May 31. Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Local leaders in towns big and small are speaking out against excessive use of force by police, and they're calling for broader change and accountability in their communities, per Axios' Rashaan Ayesh. Here's what some are saying.

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small tells Patch, "People should be pissed. I'm angry, and it happens time and time again in America. ... But I'm speaking about Atlantic City. People from Atlantic City need to step up when things are happening in Atlantic City."

Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, Commissioner Mariah Parker told NPR, “Right now, I am working on a proposal for the current budget to replace some small amounts of officer positions with mental health responders who are trained in helping people having mental health crises get access to the resources they need."

McKinney, Texas, Mayor George Fuller said, "What happened was atrocious. Unconscionable. So to have people stand up and peacefully express that, especially young people and students of all races, it's impressive."

4. Lessons from Cincinnati

Dion Jackson protests against police violence on April 12, 2001, in downtown Cincinnati. Photo: David Maxwell/AFP via Getty Images.

On April 7, 2001, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was fatally shot while running from police.

  • He was unarmed, wanted for minor misdemeanors like not wearing a seatbelt. He was the fifth African American killed by Cincinnati police in seven months, CNN reported at the time.
  • Several days of violent protests and civil unrest followed. Five months later, a jury found the white officer not guilty.

Why it matters: In the wake of the 2001 riots, Cincinnati overhauled its policing policies, which could prove constructive for cities looking to do the same today.

The city took several steps:

  1. Adopted a very specific use-of-force policy that banned batons, rubber bullets and chokeholds. Also instituted mandatory training for law enforcement on implicit bias, homelessness, drug abuse and de-escalation.
  2. Increased transparency by forming a fully funded, independent citizen complaint authority that publicly investigated allegations against officers.
  3. Changed policing model by targeting repeat violent offenders over minor crimes.
  4. Automatic body cameras: Newer technology has been implemented to automatically turn on body cams when an officer gets out of the car or pulls a gun or taser.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who was a member of the city council during the 2001 riots, said these actions have instilled more trust and transparency between the police force and the public — and he said it's also reduced both arrests and serious crimes by 50%.

Protests in the city have been turbulent: A police officer was shot on Saturday, but he was not hurt as the bullet struck his helmet. Over the last several nights, Cranley said the vast majority of agitators arrested by the police have been white.

  • "There are many things that are racially unjust here. We're not perfect. But we do think we have made some real strides," Cranley said. "It's a never-ending, continuous improvement."
5. Poll: Racial divide on police, virus
Data: Ipsos/Axios survey; Note: ±3.2% margin of error; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

A new Axios-Ipsos poll finds that America has a massive racial gulf on each of our twin calamities — trust in police and fear of the coronavirus, Axios' Margaret Talev writes.

  • 77% of white people say they trust local police, compared with just 36% of African Americans — one of many measures of a throbbing racial divide in Week 11 of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, taken the week George Floyd was killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis.
  • 75% of African Americans say they're extremely or very concerned that the coronavirus is doing greater damage to people of color, while 30% of white people and 42% of Hispanics share that concern.
  • 70% of African Americans say they're very concerned that official responses to the pandemic are being biased against some racial groups. Only one-third of white people and about half of Hispanics share that view.

Go deeper

6. Urban files

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some call for fewer police, even as streets erupt (Axios)

LAPD to slash up to $150 million from budget to reinvest in communities of color (LA Times)

America's cities were designed to oppress (CityLab)

A sneak peek at San Francisco's new low-carbon neighborhood (Smart Cities Dive)

Minnesota presses for oversight of Minneapolis police — will other states follow? (Route Fifty)

7. 1 hopeful thing: Ferguson elects its first black mayor

Ella Jones was elected Tuesday as the first black mayor — and the first female mayor — of Ferguson, Missouri, where the 2014 police-involved shooting of Michael Brown sparked protests that brought national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: Jones was the first black woman elected to Ferguson's city council in 2015 — and her win comes as protests over police violence and systemic racism are again taking place across the country.

  • "I've got work to do — because when you're an African American woman, they require more of you than they require of my counterpart," she said in a video posted by St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum.
Kim Hart

Be safe! See you next week.