Minneapolis Police
Credit: Jenny Salita/Flickr

As the protests against police violence continue to build across the country, many progressive activists now see an opportunity for concrete reforms that once seemed unthinkable. Legislators and activists (mostly of color) have been toiling for decades on potential solutions, but have been stymied in a structurally racist country where even white liberals valued their lives far too cheaply.

Some of the proposals advocated by Black Lives Matter activists at Campaign Zero and elsewhere require or would be greatly assisted by federal and state legislation. And indeed, both Democrats in Congress and those seeking the presidency (including presumptive nominee Joe Biden, whose past record on these issues has been far less than ideal) have worked in tandem with their communities to promote some excellent legislation.

But the harsh reality is that these federal efforts are easy and largely for show. As long as a Republican is president and both Republicans and conservative Democrats can support a filibuster, nothing will happen to make them a reality. They are essentially little more than message bills. Moreover, it is at the local level that the most direct impacts on the problem can be made. It is mayors and city councils who set municipal budgets, and perpetuate a system where around half of major city discretionary budgets are spent on police departments. It is mayors who are in the most direct position to influence the policies of their police departments, and mayors who can do the most to hold officers accountable for misconduct.

The legislative dithering and rhetorical cowardice of so many Democratic mayors suggests that they are not truly in control of their cities. Rather, their cities are functionally dominated by the police departments that should be accountable to their governments. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the leaders of the two biggest cities in America, have faced criticism for their tepid responses to overreaching police use of force.

One has to wonder why. De Blasio, who once thought he could contend for the presidency, is being humiliated nightly on national television by the NYPD’s ironclad commitment to mass brutality against both protesters and media. Garcetti has similarly been embarrassed by the LAPD, whose officers have been shown on video routinely using unnecessary force against demonstrators who posed no threat to them.

America’s two biggest cities are not the only ones facing these issues. In the District of Columbia, the Metropolitan Police Department, apparently not federalized and still under the control of Mayor Muriel Bowser, laid siege overnight to dozens of young protesters who were being sheltered from arrest for curfew violations by a good samaritan who gave them refuge until curfew expired the next morning. In Buffalo, NY, an officer brazenly battered a 75-year-old man and cracked open his skull, simply because he stood in a public square. Neither of these abuses have drawn significant criticism from leadership in their respective cities.

There are structural reasons why it has historically been so difficult for even ideologically committed progressive mayors to enact any sort of substantial reform to police departments, and these reasons range from the banal to the grotesque. To begin with, police union and benevolent association endorsements are some of the most coveted endorsements in local politics, and can make or break a candidate’s political fortunes. That strongly reduces the incentives for city government officials to go head-to-head with police departments on matters of budget and policy. That is politics at its most commonplace. Sometimes, however, the relationship between city governments and their police forces is downright toxic and abusive.

Consider the case of Minneapolis. Ward 3 Councilmember Fletcher posted a series of tweets earlier this week stating that for years, the Minneapolis Police Department has intentionally delivered slower response services to Wards represented by politicians who do not toe the police department’s line in budget discussions, and then tells Ward residents to take it up with their councilmember. Councilmembers know this, Fletcher argues, and go along with whatever the department wants so as not to face this quandary. Chief Newsham of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, meanwhile, stated on the Kojo Nnamdi Show recently that the best way to avoid police brutality was to give the police department more money. In Buffalo, NY, media are afraid to hold the police department accountable because by doing so, they risk losing access to their sources across the entire city government. In New York, police associations have acted no better than organized crime syndicates, even going so far as to doxx De Blasio’s daughter in an effort to humiliate him.

The reason police departments act like they run the cities they’re supposed to serve is because, for all intents and purposes, they do–and when the chips are down, they use violence against the people to reinforce their claim. This ethic has been entrenched across generations. It has also been reinforced by the fact that at least until recently, police have retained high levels of trust among large (especially white and suburban) segments of the voting public.

But there is hope that the brutal police response to the protests against the killing of George Floyd could finally be changing this dynamic. Public opinion across all racial groups is rapidly shifting against police departments. This in turn is opening a window for reform-minded leaders to step up to meet the challenge.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti and City Council President Nury Martinez are teaming up to reduce the LAPD’s budget by $150 million–something that would be unthinkable city policy before these protests. In Washington, DC, a progressive challenger, Janeese Lewis-George, just defeated an incumbent City Councilmember in the Democratic primary by running on a platform of reducing the city’s police budget. Coincidentally, this election took place during the height of last week’s civil unrest, creating a situation in which polls were open later than the city’s mandatory curfew.

Results like these are equally as important, if not more so, than any federal legislation introduced in Congress–at least, until and unless Democrats secure the White House and a Senate majority with the will to pass major reforms. But change at the local level will not happen unless the same activists that pour their heart and soul into federal elections carry that same spirit of enthusiasm toward holding municipal government accountable and giving a strong tailwind to mayors, city councilmembers, and county executives who are trying to do the right thing.

This week could be a watershed moment for changing the relationship between police departments and municipal government–but only if citizens and activists make it so. Solutions must begin at a local level. Enacting those solutions will depend on strengthening the hand of local legislators to defy the intransigence of their police departments–and being willing to primary and replace incumbents who refuse to do so.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.

Dante Atkins

Follow Dante on Twitter @DanteAtkins. Dante Atkins is a former Hill staffer and current progressive communications consultant. Originally from Los Angeles, he resides in Washington, DC.