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Everything Mayors and Governors Have Done to Dismantle Systemic Racism

By Matthew Kuster ’22

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler takes part in a protest (Photo Credit: Willamette Week)
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler takes part in a protest (Photo Credit: Willamette Week)

After George Floyd’s death sparked a national uproar over police brutality and racial injustice in the United States, protesters took to the streets to demand change.

Protests, which began in Minneapolis at the end of May, persisted through the month of June, and spread to 60 countries and hundreds of US cities across all 50 states. The protests have pressured government leaders to confront police brutality and systemic racism and have elicited a range of responses from governors and mayors. Many mayors and governors have publicly condemned the actions of the officers responsible for Floyd’s murder and acknowledged racism as a pervasive issue in their respective cities and states. Some have begun dismantling systemic racism through concrete legislative and police reform, as well as through the eradication of racist symbols.

A few mayors and governors have promptly tackled police reform specifically tailored to address incidents that have occurred in their respective cities and states. On May 26, in response to George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey signed a restraining order issuing immediate changes in policing. Mayor Frey’s order included a ban on chokeholds and a civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. In Floyd’s hometown of Houston, Texas, Mayor Sylvester Turner also banned chokeholds.

In Georgia, on February 23, a 25-year old Black man named Ahmaud Arbery was on a jog when he was pursued, shot, and killed by three white men—one of whom was a former police officer—who claimed they thought Arbery was a burglar. One of the men hurled the n-word as he killed Arbery, and the three men have since been indicted on nine charges, including malice murder and four counts of felony murder. In response to the incident and subsequent public outrage, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a hate crime bill that imposes additional penalties for crimes motivated by a victim's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability. Georgia was one of a few states lacking a hate crime law prior to Arbery’s death.

Despite 23-year old Elijah McClain’s death following a police incident in Aurora, CO, the officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing in February 2020, and Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to file criminal charges. Although the events occurred on August 24, 2019, the incident has gained national attention in recent weeks, and Colorado Governor Jared Polis decided to reopen the investigation into McClain’s death to “determine whether the facts justify criminal charges against members of law enforcement.”

On the heels of Rayshard Brooks’s death in a police encounter with Atlanta police on June 12, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued administrative orders tackling police reform based on recommendations from the Use of Force Advisory Council, which she established on June 3. The orders will require Atlanta officers to use de-escalation tactics before using deadly force, to intervene if they see an officer unreasonably using excessive force, and to report all uses of deadly force to the city’s citizens review board. Mayor Bottoms increased the budget for the Atlanta Citizens Review Board by $427,000. The orders direct police to improve transparency regarding officer footage and direct the chief of police to pinpoint changes to improve the percentages of officers wearing and using body cameras during arrests from 94 percent to 100 percent.

On May 26, a white woman made a false, race-based call to the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man birdwatching in Central Park. The incident gained heavy publicity on social media, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo worked on and signed a legislative bundle on June 12 that includes outlawing false, race-based 9-1-1 calls. The sweeping legislative bundle signed by Gov. Cuomo includes the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which makes the use of “a chokehold or similar restraint” that causes injury or death a class C felony punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. The Act honors Eric Garner, who was killed by an NYPD officer in 2014.

The same “Say Their Name” reform package of ten bills also includes several other important mandates. The 50-A statute, which police departments have used to conceal disciplinary records of officers, was repealed; the New Yorker’s Right to Monitor Act was passed to protect the right of bystanders to record and keep recordings; all New York officers will be required to be supplied with body cameras; the attorney general was designated as an independent prosecutor for matters relating to the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of law enforcement; and the Police Statistics and Transparency Act was established, requiring courts to publish demographic data on low-level offenses and requiring police departments to annually submit reports on arrest-related deaths. Through an executive order, Gov. Cuomo also established the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative to recommend improvements to police policies. Other governors have also signed sweeping reform packages in the last few weeks.

On June 12, Gov. Polis signed a historic, bipartisan police reform bill that ends qualified immunity, making Colorado the first state to adopt legislation to specifically deny qualified immunity as a defense. In the other 49 states, as long as officials do not violate “clearly established law” as determined in a prior court case with similar facts, the doctrine of qualified immunity essentially shields government officials from liability for damage claims, even if they violate someone’s constitutional rights. Now, in Colorado, a police officer may be held personally liable for violating someone’s constitutional rights and be responsible for up to $25,000 in damages. The bill also requires all law enforcement officials to be equipped with body cameras by 2023, mandates the public release of certain body camera footage, requires officers to intervene if they see another officer violating the law, and makes several use-of-force policy changes. The use-of-force policy changes ban using chokeholds, shooting fleeing suspects, and using deadly force in all police departments unless a life is in immediate danger.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont issued a comprehensive, 5-part executive order. The order explicitly prohibits chokeholds and any other tactics that “restrict oxygen or blood flow to the head or neck.” Under the order’s use-of-force policy, the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection will review the state police’s operations manual and update it in October to adopt several policies involving deadly force, a policy requiring officers to intervene when another officer uses excessive force, and a policy requiring all uses of force to be reported. Gov. Lamont’s order mandates that “community trust liaisons” be appointed and trained to help build relationships between residents and law enforcement. In an attempt to demilitarize Connecticut police, the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection will not be allowed to purchase military-style equipment from the federal government, and finally, in an attempt to hold police accountable, all uniformed troopers and marked vehicles will be equipped with cameras.

Iowa’s legislature is credited with moving swiftly to produce a police reform bill, and Governor Kim Reynolds signed it into law on June 12. The bill puts in place tougher restrictions on the use of chokeholds, prevents police officers who have been fired for misconduct from being hired again in the state, grants the attorney general the power to investigate police actions resulting in death, and establishes yearly anti-bias and de-escalation training requirements.

In response to the George Floyd incident, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed House Bill 5007. This bill makes it a third-degree felony to use knee pressure on someone’s neck, a second-degree felony if the knee action results in loss of consciousness or injury, and a first-degree felony if it results in death. The bill also prohibits training that uses chokeholds and other similar restraints. Gov. Herbert enacted a ban of chokeholds that applies to the Utah Department of Public Safety and Department of Corrections, and he encouraged other police agencies to also ban the use of chokeholds. Gov. Herbert also plans to implement implicit bias training for all state government officials in Utah.

In early June, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf outlined a series of actions based on President Obama’s 21st-Century Policing Task Force, which was created in 2015 following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After Gov. Wolf announced his proposals for police reforms, the General Assembly produced two bills which the governor signed into law on June 30. One bill will require the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission to maintain an electronic database containing officers’ employment history, disciplinary actions, complaints, and reasons for separating with a department. In order to prevent officers with checkered pasts from continuing to serve, the bill requires departments to conduct background checks into their applicants using the database. The second bill mandates biannual training for officers on de-escalation and harm-reduction techniques and interaction with people of different racial backgrounds. The bill also addresses mental health, requiring officers to undergo mental health evaluations after an incident involving lethal force, or if their supervisors request it. If an officer displays signs of PTSD, a licensed physician must clear the officer before they can return to their duties.

While some leaders have been able to sign concrete policies into law, others have also acted quickly but taken a longer, but more thorough approach to reform. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, one of the first to utilize his executive powers, issued an executive order creating the Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement in Arkansas, an advisory body assigned with several duties—most notably to review law enforcement “training, policy, and operations,” to “analyze the processes for accountability, discipline, removal, and decertification” of officers, and to study community policing efforts. On December 31, the task force will make recommendations to Gov. Hutchinson on how to improve the “profession of law enforcement” and “enhance trust between law enforcement and communities.” Over a dozen other governors have formed similar committees typically composed of a mix of members, but mainly of law enforcement members and citizen activists. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu’s Commission on Law Enforcement, Accountability, Community, and Transparency has specifically targeted training standards in their analysis of police policy. Governors across the country have pledged to further tackle systemic racism and police brutality based on their task force’s findings and recommendations, and mayors of many cities have followed suit. Activists eagerly await the findings of such task forces to see if they will spur real policy change.

Meanwhile, the United States Conference of Mayors chose the mayors of Chicago, IL, Tampa Bay, FL, and Cincinnati, OH to head the Police Reform and Racial Justice Working Group to help reform policing. USCM President and Mayor of Rochester Hills, MI, Bryan K. Barnett, declared that the “nation’s mayors are committed to dismantling the systemic racism that exists in our country.” As the Working Group’s leader, Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot established the framework for a comprehensive reform of the police and will lead the discussion around police violence and racial justice issues. The mayors hope to establish national standards for policing. The Working Group also considered “resolutions related to long-standing economic and racial disparities brought to light by COVID-19,” including racial disparities of exposure to environmental health risks and lack of access to adequate healthcare. They concluded that their policies must “promote equitable outcomes for African Americans and Latinx residents by tapping community-based assets and disaggregating data by race and ethnicity so that leaders can identify and understand the depth of challenges.” The Working Group is slated to release its recommendations in July.

Several other mayors have emerged as leaders in reforming their police. Despite the city being less than 3 percent black, Albuquerque saw its streets filled with protesters who called for the police to be defunded. Mayor Tim Keller responded by creating an alternative public safety department to relieve officers from the burden of responding to 911 calls that they are not best suited to handle. The Albuquerque Community Safety will be composed of unarmed social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, and violence prevention coordinators. The new department will respond to calls related to inebriation, homelessness, addiction, and mental health, and is the first department of its kind.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are two mayors of major cities to listen to cries to “defund the police” and invest in social services and communities of color. Mayor Wheeler’s mayoral directives redirect $7 million from the police budget and an additional $5 million from Portland’s other funds into communities of color. He will also make policing changes to end the use of patrol officers on public transit. Mayor Wheeler additionally plans to ban chokeholds, dissolve the police gun violence reduction unit, and reform consent searches in traffic stops, among other things. Mayor Garcetti has pledged to direct $250 million to youth jobs, health initiatives, and peace centers, with nearly $150 million coming from the Los Angeles Police Department. The original budget for the LAPD was placed at around $1.8 billion. If the LA City Council approves the shift of funds, the LAPD’s budget will fall under 50 percent of the city’s total general fund.

While the majority of mayors’ and governors’ efforts have been directed towards police reform, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, for one, has expressed his goals to solve systemic racism in the healthcare, education, and justice sectors in addition to law enforcement. Gov. Beshear’s administration will require all law enforcement officers to complete 8 hours of online training this year on subjects including implicit bias, use of force, civil rights laws, ethics, and emotional intelligence, and they hope to increase this training requirement to 40 hours a year. As COVID-19 exposed racial disparities across the country, Kentucky witnessed a similar trend—Black people represent 8.4 percent of the state’s population, but 16 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. Gov. Beshear pledged to work towards “100 percent coverage” for the Black population, whether through Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance. As a result of the protests, Kentucky’s Department of Education will adopt a few reforms, including training educators on implicit bias and recruiting more teachers of color by working with post-secondary institutions and historically Black universities.

In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper signed into law Senate Bill 562, or the “Second Chance Act,” a criminal justice reform bill. The Act allows people with nonviolent criminal records to have misdemeanors or low-level felonies that they committed from ages sixteen to eighteen to be expunged. It will automatically remove records of charges for which the person was not convicted. Along with the Second Chance Act, Gov. Cooper signed House Bill 511, or the “First Step Act,” which increases judicial discretion for some drug offenses by relaxing mandatory minimums. Daniel Bowes, director of the NC Justice Center’s Fair Chance-Criminal Justice Project, commented on the bills’ effects as they pertain to dismantling systemic racism: “People of color in North Carolina are far more likely to have criminal records due to inequitable policing and prosecution practices, and people of color with criminal records often face more severe barriers to reentry and opportunity.”

Nationwide reforms in policing and other areas have been accompanied by several important symbolic acts dismantling racism. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order to remove the term “Providence Plantations” from government documents—a term that Gov. Raimondo recognizes is “painful” for Black Rhode Islanders to see in their state’s government.

Confederate symbols especially have become targets of some protests, and while protesters have destroyed some Confederate statues on their own, mayors and governors have taken the initiative to dismantle them. On June 1, which happens to be Jefferson Davis Day in Alabama, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin approved the removal of a Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument in a public park. Mayor Woodfin called for the statue’s removal in defiance of the Alabama Monuments Preservation Act. North Carolina’s Gov. Cooper also ordered the removal of two Confederate statues at the State Capitol in Raleigh. Although he has been temporarily blocked by a judge, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam attempted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond’s Monument Avenue. On June 30, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill to replace Mississippi’s state flag, which previously carried the Confederate flag within it.

Mayors and governors have sought to accompany nationwide reform with recognition of Juneteenth and other symbolic displays. Most notably, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed a segment of 16th Street NW near the White House the “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and had “Black Lives Matter” painted on the street.

In June, protestors pressured their mayors and governors to address systemic racism within their jurisdictions. Working with state legislatures and city councils, many mayors and governors attempted to meet the demands for change. In one month alone, they pushed extensive, immediate police reform and established task forces to conduct comprehensive reviews of law enforcement practices. Some have worked to complement police reform with symbolic displays, criminal justice reform, and investment into communities of color.

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