Protesters have covered the fence outside the White House with messages honoring George Floyd and speaking out against racism.


SAN FRANCISCO — Mayor London Breed has a spacious office in an ornate building, but for all the pomp of her position, her roots remain in the city’s rough Western Addition neighborhood.

Her sister died of a drug overdose, her brother is in jail and a cousin was killed by local police. For Breed, and other African American mayors, the current cry for a policing reform after the death of George Floyd —  a 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis who was pinned to the ground by officers after being accused of passing a fake $20 bill at a store — is deeply personal.

“The black people in communities with black mayors know we understand these experiences like no one else can,” says Breed. “There’s no way we’re not going to hold law enforcement accountable like never before.”

After decades of talking around the politically fraught issue of police reform, the nation now is tackling it head on. In Minneapolis, officials vowed to dismantle the police department. On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors announced a working group aimed “to help end injustices facing black Americans.”

USA TODAY reached out to some of the nation’s roughly 500 black mayors in cities large and small to get a sense of their view on this historic moment. They said reforming the way officers do their work has long been a priority that has yielded mixed results. All said that Floyd’s death represents an opportunity to remake a flawed system.

“Everyone I’ve spoken with in our group feels this is different,” says McKinley Price, mayor of Newport News, Virginia, and president of the African American Mayors Association. “When Floyd’s little daughter Gianna said in that video, ‘My daddy changed the world,’ we might look back at that moment and say that he did.”

Price says in his two years as mayor of the state’s fifth-largest city, where roughly 40% of the residents are African American, Newport News has embraced tougher hiring guidelines, promotions that include citizen review and requiring that acts of force be reviewed by the police chief.

Like other black mayors, Price says his city used as a guideline a May 2015 report issued by then-President Barack Obama called “The President’s Task Force on 21-Century Policing,” which offered 59 recommendations in six categories focused on building community trust and improved training methods. 

More recently, Price said his police chief, who is white, announced last weekend that officers witnessing a fellow officer violating rules of conduct must intervene. In Floyd’s killing, three other officers stood by as he was fatally kneeled on for nearly 9 minutes by officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

Mayor: ‘It’s nice to see new people join the fight’

For Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, elected last summer, the protests present an opportunity to “bring about a new series of reforms and cause us to look closer at what we’ve been doing well and what we can do better.”

He says his priorities are to improve diversity training to better mitigate against systemic racism, increase funding to projects that reduce urban blight, improve education and improve infrastructure in African American neighborhoods, all of which if neglected spur crime.

Dallas’ current police budget is about a third of the city’s $1.4 billion general fund. While city officials have said they are open to reallocating some money away from law enforcement, resident surveys reflect a desire for more officers.

“I love seeing all the protests, and I hope they translate into people voting for policy shifts,” Johnson says. “But fundamentally, it’s local police working alongside local community members that will be at the forefront of a lot of these changes.”

In Stockton, California, 29-year-old Mayor Michael Tubbs says his city has already made great strides. Last year, city officials announced an 80% decline in police shootings over the past two years.

Tubbs says his messaging over the past weeks to residents and activists has been to highlight the city’s progress on police reform while also asking for tax increases to cover additional mental health and other social programs. 

“As a young black man, I’ve always known police brutality is a problem, from the killings of Oscar Grant to Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to George Floyd,” he says. “It’s a vestige of white supremacy and structural racism. It’s nice to see new people join the fight as we push to create a society we all deserve.”

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said he supports widespread police reforms He issued a sweeping order Wednesday to his city’s police department aimed at reducing deadly force by officers and banning choke and strangle holds, unless they have no other alternative to protect themselves or the public. Placing an officer’s knee on a suspect’s neck is expressly forbidden under the order, Turner said.

Turner, who represented a predominantly African American district in the Texas House for 27 years before being elected mayor in 2015, said the directive instructs Houston police officers to use what he called “de-escalation techniques” before resorting to force, when possible. The order also requires police officers who witness one of their colleagues “using force beyond that which is reasonable” to intercede and report the action to a supervisor.

Black mayors also face racism because of their skin color

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first black woman and openly gay mayor, vowed in her State of the City address on June 2 to implement a series of police reforms in the next 90 days. This week, she said she was considering licensing requirements for police officers.

In Houston, where Floyd’s memorial was held Tuesday, Mayor Sylvester Turner said he was drafting an executive order banning chokeholds and strangleholds.

But despite the cry for reform from many quarters, black mayors still have a tightrope to walk, says Ravi Perry, chair and professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. 

“They have to navigate being black and navigate governing as black, and those are two different challenges, because the latter requires you to engage the institutions that some black people say were built to subjugate us,” he says.

Perry, who has written books about black mayors and the challenges they face, says this “tightrope” exists for Black mayors regardless of the racial makeup of their cities. 

He notes that for years the thinking was that to get white support for policy changes, requiring black mayors to capitulate and “run away from race.” But that’s no longer true.

Instead, mayors now can view issues through a lens of “targeted universalism where, yes, you highlight the racial ethnic identity significance of the community in which a project may be targeted, but you also highlight how that project is beneficial to everyone. So while the park is in the hood, it’s open to everyone.”

That’s the approach taken by Oliver Gilbert, mayor of Miami Gardens, Florida, the largest predominantly black city in the state with more than 50% of its 113,000 citizens being African American.

In 2014, Gilbert oversaw a multi-million improvement to the city’s parks system that included offering programs in science, math, dance, boxing and cooking. At the same time, he allocated funds to beef up technology for the city’s police department, including investing in more body cameras, license plate readers and devices that read where and when shots have been fired.

He’s also worked to get local youth interested in law enforcement, a move that he says has helped grow the Miami Gardens department to more than half African American. Gilbert adds that by empowering city managers to hold officers to certain standards, the city has over the past years dismissed a dozen officers for a range of offenses.

“When we decide as America to do something, we get it done,” he says. “I was born a black man, so I’m not going to accept certain things. But seeing that officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds made it clear to everyone, not just black people, that a system that allows this needs to be fixed.”

Many cities have long grappled with police brutality

The greater Minneapolis area has a long history of police brutality. 

In 2016, in a suburb of St. Paul, an officer shot and killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, during a traffic stop. Castile told the officer he had a handgun and a license to carry before officer Jeronimo Yanez fired seven shots. Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter but was acquitted of all charges by a jury.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, the city’s first black mayor, campaigned on police reform after the shooting. Within his first 100 days in office in 2018, Carter worked with police department leadership “to completely rewrite our use-of-force policy,” he says. Changes included compelling officers to deescalate and mediate their response based on someone being passive.

Last year, the city passed a $3 million community-first public safety proposal that focused on youth jobs and neighborhood supports such as ensuring people who return to the community from incarceration can find stable housing.

“Our focus in St. Paul over the past couple years really has been arguing, and I think successfully, for a model of public safety that goes far beyond police to those types of proactive investments that can help us prevent crime before it happens,” Carter says.

Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome also made police reform a central part of her campaign in 2016. 

That year, the Louisiana parish became part of the national news cycle after the death of Alton Sterling, fatally shot by police during an encounter bystanders captured on video. Weeks later, three officers were killed in an ambush. The city was also devastated by a flood. 

Broome says the city has been recovering from the trauma ever since. That also means it has a head start on many of the reforms being talked about today. In her first week on the job, Broome commissioned a group of citizens to start giving input on reforms.

“This takes intentionality,” she says. “It’s just not going to happen without somebody being committed and dedicated to seeing that happen. And it’s a process.”

Over the past three years, Baton Rouge got police body cameras, banned chokeholds, required de-escalation and verbal warnings before deadly use is deployed. Last year, the police chief made a public apology to communities of color for the way policing had gone in the past.

There’s still work to be done, Broome says, like increasing diversity in the ranks. But she says the new approach has gotten results in that police have more help solving crimes as citizens trust and feel more connected to officers.

“I do think this is one of those moments where we will see substantial action towards police reform,” she says. “That is certainly a positive thing, not only for the citizens, but for law enforcement as well.”

‘This is very personal for me’

In Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock campaigned for office on a platform of changing how police operate — he doesn’t like the word “reform” — and has continued those efforts despite repeated opposition from the city’s police union.

“The reality is that we can go a long way to serving the public better and safer if we have a better understanding of where crime comes from, who are the victims of crime,” says Hancock, citing obesity, low school attendance and poverty as drivers of both criminals and victimization.

Elected to the mayor’s office in 2011, Hancock brought in a new police chief he felt was more committed to accountability. Chief Paul Pazen, who is white, launched body-worn cameras for officers and helped develop a new use-of-force police banning chokeholds and limiting the use of body weight to restrain detainees. That policy took years to develop, and is only now being rolled out across the city.

Denver police have a long history of killing residents, deaths that have resulted in millions in payments to settle wrongful death claims. Hancock said changing the culture takes time, and involves hiring more diverse officers and making sure cops get implicit bias and conflict de-escalation training. He said he’s encouraged with the work that’s been done, but acknowledges there’s more ahead.

“I’m probably more optimistic than I have been in my lifetime,” he says, adding that he was racially profiled as a teen by police, and has had “the birds and the bees and the police” conversations with his son. Listening, he says, remains the key to change.

“Even as an African American mayor, I need to shut up and listen more,” says Hancock.

While listening helps, reform can be difficult for many city leaders.

In San Francisco, leaders including Mayor Breed have worked hard on a range of social issues, including homelessness and policing, but fundamental structural changes remain elusive.

While Breed has been pushing for improvements in the department since her days as city supervisor, a recent report by the state’s Department of Justice outlines successes and shortfalls.

For example, while use-of-force incidents dropped by 24% in 2019, officers continued to use force disproportionately against black and Latino people, with 39% of total incidents involving black men and 22% Latino men in the last quarter of 2019, the report found. Fewer than 5% of San Francisco residents are African American.

Police here did over the past year decrease stops of African Americans by 29% and expanded community policing programs. But the department was not found to be compliant in auditing arrest and use-of-force data, training officers in addressing bias policing and more than 200 other reforms that police officials vowed to tackle four years ago.

Breed acknowledges the slow progress, but says reforms will continue. “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she says. 

The city’s first female black mayor says she remains undaunted in her quest to remake a department that, as a child, she feared.

“I’ve seen my fair share of officers beat down people in my community,” she says. “But I know this is a marathon and not a sprint. This is very personal for me. This isn’t about being the mayor as much as it’s about doing what I can do to make sure I don’t see another black man die the way George Floyd did.”

Contributing: Trevor Hughes in Denver; Grace Hauck in Chicago; John C. Moritz in Austin; Jennifer Berg of the St. Cloud Times.

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