America’s Black Mayors Promise Change, but Don’t Go Far Enough
From left: Mayors Keisha Bottoms, London Breed, Michael Hancock, Lori Lightfoot. Photos: Paras Griffin, Jonathan Daniel, Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

America’s Black Mayors Promise Change, but Don’t Go Far Enough

Despite marching and renaming streets…

America is tired. Black people who carry its weathered bones have outstretched their limbs to every corner of the country, digging their nails in the dirt, demanding America reckon with its brutal past and brutal present. Tens of millions of people have participated in Black Lives Matter protests within the past few months, making it one of the largest movements in U.S. history.

This outcry for change comes at a time when Black mayors lead roughly 25% of the top American cities. These mayors have marched, tweeted in solidarity, written op-eds about their police fears, commissioned murals, reclaimed and renamed streets to honor Black lives. To many, these gestures seem comforting; to many others, they seem hollow and performative. Regardless of the vocal solidarity these mayors have offered up with Black Lives Matter, do their criminal justice policies support the demands and needs of their Black constituents? To find out, I analyzed the policy positions of the 24 Black mayors governing cities whose populations top 200,000, and found that the majority are implementing a half-in, half-out strategy that prizes incremental reform over more progressive measures — in contrast to many of their constituents’ desires.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement’s inception, two demands in particular have come to the forefront: defunding the police (by reallocating law enforcement budgets to community services), and fully abolishing the police (which would take place instead of reforms to current law enforcement). While both proposals have entered the mainstream discussion in an unprecedented way this year, opinions on both remain mixed. According to a recent July Gallup poll, only 22% of Black Americans want to abolish police, with 70% supporting defunding.

A Pew Research Center poll shows a different perspective, with only 42% of Black Americans wanting to defund the police, and attitudes breaking starkly along generational lines: More than half of those 18–49 want to defund, while only 29% of those who are 50 and older hold the same view. That contrast highlights a chasm between Black youth and their elders. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown — the deaths of whom ignited the Black Lives Matter movement — are Generation Z’s peers; Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray are solidly millennials. Calls to defund the police are rooted not only in the exhaustion of seeing one’s own generation killed, but also in younger people’s disillusionment with electoral politics.

The polling data does show one consistency, however: Reforms like encouraging better relations between police departments, promoting community-based alternatives to law enforcement, and greater accountability measures enjoy broad-based appeal in Black communities. And whether reflecting that consistency or responding to it, the top 24 Black mayors across the country appear to have a consensus on police reform, with many opening up transparency into their police departments and a couple actively endorsing defunding the police.

Even before engaging with policy and their constituents, Black mayors come into office facing unique challenges. They are offloaded with the weighted grievances of an entire community and expected to reconcile the differing opinions and needs within it — all while being scrutinized more than their White counterparts. “Black leaders get it harder than anyone else,” Mayor London Breed of San Francisco told Vogue. “If I were a White man who accomplished everything that I’ve already done for this city — over a billion dollars for affordable housing, a thousand new shelter beds — I would be treated way differently than how I’m treated now.”

This spotlight is a major factor in why Black mayors across the country often walk a thin political tightrope when articulating their stance on defunding. Saying definitively yes or no could be political suicide. Although defunding has high support among Black people, Gallup shows that it only has about 41% support among White Americans, and 47% among Hispanic Americans. Mayors must also navigate the bureaucratic political system, dealing with police chiefs, police unions, city council members, and city managers who may have a difference of opinion on police reform. (In Kansas City, the police department is controlled by a state commission instead of a local city governing body.)

However, some have taken diplomacy to the point of seemingly abdicating their mayoral responsibilities. Some mayors have questioned the interpretation of the term “defund,” pointing to the practical and financial complexities involved; in doing so, they attempt to hover above the issue, straddling without landing.

“But the other thing that we talked about as mayors is that reform is expensive because all of these things that we want to put in place, like body cams, cost money. I think there’s got to be real conversation about when we say ‘defund the police,’ what that really means and what things are included in that”

– Mayor Victoria Woodards, Tacoma, Washington

“I think that a very simplified message is ‘defund the police,’ but I think the overarching thing is that people want to see a reallocation of resources into community development and alternatives to just criminalizing… behavior, so I think it’s incumbent upon us to help people articulate that frustration,”

– Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta, Georgia (Notably, Atlanta is increasing its police budget in 2021.)

“When I hear this issue around defunding, I hear, ‘We don’t have enough resources in communities of color, and you spend way too much on the police.’ I agree with that piece. But let’s break down the practicalities of what defunding means. In our police department, about 90% of the budget is personnel. When you talk about defunding, you’re talking about getting rid of officers.”

– Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago, Illinois

In some cities where Black mayors have come down against defunding, city councils have taken the lead. In Rochester, New York, Mayor Lovely Warren has said there she has no plans to defund the police — yet Rochester’s city council voted in favor of a 3% budget decrease, as well as plans to cut the next class of police recruits in half, and reallocating $130,000 from police overtime funds to recreation and youth services. Similarly, while Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young initially blocked the city council from cutting police funds, he later upheld $22 million in law enforcement cuts the city council had approved.

Other mayors have been more transparent about their opposition to defunding.

“I don’t think you can do an across-the-board defunding [of] the police in any city, and certainly not here in Denver… I think it is a false narrative to say ‘defund the police,’ when in reality you need to analyze and hold accountable police officers.”

– Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver, Colorado (via interview)

“I do not support defunding the police. I believe in providing more resources and guidance to police departments for proactive measures and deescalation tactics. I recommended to the city council we require a minimum of 5% of the current police budget to be used for mental health and community related services.”

– Mayor Mitch Colvin, Fayetteville, North Carolina (via interview)

“I am not in favor of defunding the police department, but I am in strong favor of reforming the police department.”

– Mayor Byron Brown, Buffalo, New York

While the bulk of the 24 mayors analyzed took a centrist position, seven proved to be outliers — either failing or excelling at leadership on law enforcement policy. Four (New Orleans’ LaToya Cantrell; Harry LaRosiliere of Plano, Texas; Acquanetta Warren of Fontana, California; and Kenneth Alexander of Norfolk, Virginia) have largely stepped aside, leaving their police chiefs to handle talks on police reform. Warren, the worst offender, has offered no initiatives to hold police accountable in any way. These mayors have conveyed the bare minimum to their constituents regarding policies surrounding law enforcement, and in the absence of mayoral leadership, police departments have taken the reins on their own reform.

The capacity of an institution to regulate itself immediately presents a conflict, of course. In a time when law enforcement has been involved in public killings, disappearings, and general violence toward the public, the need for an external oversight body should be obvious.

The other three are the only mayors taking an explicit stand in favor of defunding the police: Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota; Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey; and London Breed of San Francisco. In 2019, the St. Paul city council allocated $1.7 million from the police to community-based public safety. This year, in the face of Covid-prompted budget cuts, Mayor Carter requested an additional $9 million in cuts to law enforcement. Mayor Baraka announced that $15 million would be redirected from the police department to Newark’s newly created Office of Violence Prevention, to be staffed with psychologists and social workers. London Breed is making by far the most significant cuts to a city’s police department, proposing the reallocation of $120 million back into San Francisco’s Black communities.

With the exception of Fontana’s Acquanetta Warren, most of the 24 mayors in question are tackling the challenges of police violence by adopting uncontroversial, widely accepted reformist policies: reviewing use-of-force standards, investing in body camera infrastructure, supporting civilian review complaint boards, and bringing in social workers to handle nonviolent crisis calls. Yet they are rejecting calls to defund nearly wholesale, despite the policy being popular among Black voters. Mayors are not misleading their cities — but they are also not giving credence to all of the Black community’s demands, even though Black people suffer under a disproportionate amount of police violence.

This refusal to defund speaks to the complexities of politics itself. It might not be possible to add more body cameras without increasing the police budget. Police unions may already have negotiated yearly pay increases in their contracts. A more conservative city council with budgetary control could undermine any proposal a mayor puts forth — effectively a reversal of what happened in Baltimore. Reelection can play a role as well; should mayors explicitly endorse defunding, their opponents could frame them as radicals whose allegiances lie with activists, rather than the constituency at large. Reformist policies pose little risk, but in majority-Black cities like Baltimore, a mayor’s decision to defund could make or break their tenure in office.

Activists have made strongly critiqued police reforms, particularly those that fall in line with Campaign Zero’s #8CantWait. Critics argue that the campaign’s suggested methods to reduce police killings ultimately expands police presence in Black communities, encourages digital surveillance of citizens, and allocates more budgetary resources for police training, rather than reinvesting those resources directly into communities.

If reforms can only reduce police violence, and cannot completely eradicate it, then the entire American law enforcement apparatus comes into question. Can the police, with its functional roots in slave patrols, operate without forcing death and destruction onto Black lives? For mayors to have the power to dismantle such an apparatus — but refuse to — reads as complicity, passively condoning the police violence that is endemic in Black communities.

Black mayors have a huge task to endure, and a heavy weight to carry. They are representatives of a disregarded community fighting in the midst of the biggest movement in American history. Progressive Democrats are being elected countrywide; young people are edging their way into electoral politics. Mayors might currently do what they feel is best for their cities, but once the baby boomer generation starts to wane, they will have to reckon with the demand for progressive policies being shouted up from those on the ground. Black America is finding its unrelenting voice — and it’s hoping that its elected officials are willing to listen.