Why Can’t Big-City Democrats Reform the Police?
Accusations of police brutality have persisted in our bluest cities for decades.
The death of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has sparked weeks of urban protests—some marked by looting and violence—across the United States. It has also brought fierce condemnations of President Donald Trump. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio partly blamed the president for the unrest, noting “there’s been an uptick in tension and hatred and division since he came along,” while Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot said that she had a message for the president: “It’s two words. It begins with F and it ends with U.” The New York Times, meantime, excoriated Trump for what the paper described as a “violent ultimatum” issued to unruly protestors, and former vice president Joe Biden charged Trump with “calling for violence against American citizens during a moment of pain.”
Less anger, though, was directed at Minneapolis’s political establishment. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (a merger of Minnesota’s Democrats and the state’s Farmer-Labor Party) has run the city since 1975. Instead, the New York Times ran a mild piece observing that, for Democratic leaders of Minneapolis and other cities, the violent events were “testing their campaign promises and principles.” The protests, the paper opined judiciously, necessitated “careful calibration of liberal leaders, between projecting empathy for the protesters and denouncing property destruction and theft.” (The Times did acknowledge that the Minneapolis police department, currently run by a black police chief, has a “long history of accusations of abuse.”)
Floyd’s death was only the latest in a series of disturbing incidents that have fed a growing belief among African-Americans that they’re a target of abusive cops. For many, today’s tragic events evoke the experiences of the 1960s, when blacks who had moved into northern cities clashed with hostile police departments, setting off similar destructive riots. “To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression,” the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report on the upheavals of that era declared. Nearly 50 years later, the Justice Department, in a report on the Baltimore Police Department in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in 2015, concluded that “the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and many of the communities it serves is broken.”
Though both reports’ conclusions were hotly contested, it’s indisputable that in each period, the principal controversies largely revolved around police departments in Democrat-controlled cities, with a few notable exceptions, like Ferguson, Missouri. Despite decades of Democratic Party governance and numerous promises of reform, these cities—Baltimore, Chicago, and Minneapolis are notable cases—continue to struggle with relations between the police and minority communities; in some cases, those relations have even regressed. The media rarely acknowledge this monumental failing of the party, and it seems to evoke little self-reflection among urban Democrats themselves.
The Democratic Party of the late 1950s and 1960s was principally a blue-collar political movement. It dominated northeastern and midwestern cities through powerful local political machines dispensing patronage to supporters—including plum positions in police departments. Corruption was endemic, and it often occurred at the expense of black residents.
Those conditions set the stage for some of the most explosive riots of that period. In July 1967, two Newark police officers arrested a black cab driver and dragged him into a precinct house, where he was beaten. Protests erupted and swiftly turned violent, lasting four days and costing 26 lives. Investigations in the aftermath uncovered widespread corruption. Newark’s mayor, Hugh Addonizio, had returned from serving in Congress to run the city because, he reportedly said, “There’s no money in Washington, but you can make a million bucks as mayor of Newark.” The city’s police department was tied to organized crime; mob bosses had helped elect Addonizio, and directly picked his police commissioner, a man widely disliked in the black community. That same summer, a Detroit police raid on an after-hours club hosting a homecoming party for two African-American Vietnam vets sparked five days of rioting that saw 43 people die in the city. As in Newark, black residents complained that the police were corrupt—for example, taking bribes to ignore street crime. Reports issued after the riots showed that the department had strong ties to local organized crime.
The Newark and Detroit riots, and riots in more than 150 other cities, that summer brought sweeping political changes, including the election of a generation of new black urban Democratic leaders. But policing remained a glaring problem. In Detroit, voters elected radical labor organizer Coleman Young, an African-American, as mayor in 1974. He went to war with his own police department, slashing its ranks by 20 percent and installing a black police commissioner, with instructions to reduce enforcement in the city radically. Both strategies—hiring more black police leaders (and officers, generally) and reducing police presence—became common in major cities. Crime exploded in Detroit, and in most American urban areas; as middle-class residents, predominantly white, left for safer suburbs, poorer blacks, living in increasingly dangerous city neighborhoods, were the biggest victims.
The story only changed when a few criminologists, led by the Manhattan Institute’s George Kelling, and visionary police leaders, like William J. Bratton, began to advocate for community-based policing, including enforcement of quality-of-life offenses, and the deployment of more sophisticated data to target crime hot spots, to bring order back to urban neighborhoods. After Bratton became New York’s police chief under Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994, crime started to fall dramatically—including violent felonies, which fell by 70 percent.
As crime declined, so did some key indicators of police misconduct. The New York Police Department keeps extensive records on how often officers fire their guns, and the numbers tell a powerful story. In 1991, at the peak of the city’s crime wave under Mayor David Dinkins, officers discharged their guns 307 times. Ten years ago, in a much safer city, police fired their guns fewer than 100 times—and last year, they did so just 52 times, representing a greater than 80 percent decline from 1991.
About a decade ago, a narrative reemerged in America that police departments are deeply racist and single out minority residents disproportionately. The timing seemed unusual. America had just elected its first black president, which might have signaled that the country’s racist past was firmly behind it—certainly in the sense of systemic or institutional racism. And yet, with Barack Obama in the White House, individual conflicts between the police and African-Americans were not downplayed but amplified, at times by the president himself. Speaking about the case of Eric Garner, a New Yorker arrested for selling contraband cigarettes who died in police custody after resisting arrest, Obama said that the incident spoke to “larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.”
New York’s progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, found larger meaning in the confrontation, explaining that he told his son Dante, who is half-black, that he faced extra danger when interacting with the police. “With Dante, very early on, we said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don’t move suddenly. Don’t reach for your cellphone,’” said de Blasio. “Because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.” Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, used his bully pulpit to argue repeatedly that police and public school officials disproportionately and unfairly targeted young blacks. Holder led federal investigations of several police departments and used the Department of Justice to force teachers and administrators to reduce suspensions of African-Americans students.
Though statistical evidence showed no disproportionate targeting of blacks, it’s clear that many African-Americans believed this narrative of the Obama years. And the rhetoric surrounding the 2020 unrest suggests that many still do. So why did so little change under a Democratic president, and in typically Democratic-run cities? The answers might lie in looking closely at some of the most egregious confrontations that occurred in blue cities over the last few years.
In October 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot at least 16 times by a police officer on a Chicago street and killed. Initial reports claimed that he was walking erratically down the street, carried a knife, and lunged at the police. Testimony from witnesses and other evidence, however, cast doubt on the official version of events. The city turned down numerous requests to release video of the incident, which took place in the middle of a difficult reelection campaign for then-mayor Rahm Emanuel, who eventually won a run-off for a second term in April 2015. When the city, under pressure, eventually provided access to several videos, the evidence showed that McDonald was walking away from the cop when shot. The release provoked widespread protests, and the officer was eventually convicted of second-degree murder.
Emanuel refused calls to resign, despite emails obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request showing that he and members of his administration were aware that the videos existed. Instead, he established a review board headed by Lori Lightfoot, then president of the Chicago Police Board, to recommend police reforms, which a Justice Department report deemed essential to restore trust between the force and the community. While Chicago, governed by Democrats since 1931, made some changes, such as providing officers with tasers, which they could use as an alternative to their guns, no sweeping reforms or reorganization of the force took place. Lightfoot ran for mayor three years later, promising that she would finish the job of reform. In office for a year, with violence spiking in the city, she came under fire in minority communities for not being tough on crime. She has resorted to some of the same strategies that Emanuel was criticized for, including flooding crime-plagued neighborhoods with extra cops.
While the McDonald case festered in Chicago, in April 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who had been arrested for carrying a knife, sustained head injuries while riding in the back of a Baltimore Police Department van and died in the hospital. Protests broke out shortly after, and some were violent, involving looting and arson, prompting Maryland governor Larry Hogan to declare a state of emergency and send in the National Guard. During the riot, the city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, was criticized for declaring, “While we tried to make sure that (protesters) were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”
Under intense criticism for her role during the riots, she decided not to run for reelection. A subsequent Department of Justice investigation accused the city police, headed by an African-American commissioner, of making unconstitutional stops and searches and of using excessive force. The task of reform fell to Rawlings-Blake’s successor, Catherine Pugh, the eighth consecutive Democrat elected mayor since 1971, who ran on a platform of restraining the police. Like many of her Democratic predecessors, her strategy revolved around reducing policing—but as police withdrew, crime and disorder spread. Murders, which had declined to as low as 197 annually, spiked to more than 300. Pugh had to resign after just two and a half years in office for pressuring groups to buy a book she had written. She eventually pled guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Though no such postmortems have taken place yet on the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we can already see the likely direction they will take. The Minneapolis Police Department hired a black police chief in 2017, and he pledged to institute broad reforms, but he’s faced resistance. One problem typical of Democratic-controlled cities is that public-sector unions are powerful, and the Minneapolis police union has apparently stymied efforts by the new chief to discipline and suspend officers accused of misconduct. “During recessions [the city] would give the union management rights in lieu of money,” Robert Olson, former chief of police in Minneapolis, told Reuters two years ago. “We’re not talking about just one union contract. We’re talking about incremental changes in contracts over years that cumulatively, suddenly, there’s all of these hoops, which makes it far more difficult for chiefs to sustain discipline.” It’s an old obstacle that the city’s political leaders haven’t rushed to fix, despite years of complaints from minorities, because unions are deeply embedded in the political landscape. Minneapolis has one of the highest rates of unionization of public employees of any metro area in the country.
Speaking on TV during the recent unrest, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden promised, if elected, to make police brutality a key issue for his administration. It was the latest in a long line of promises by leading Democrats to address what they see as police misconduct toward African-Americans. One wonders when they will be called to account for their repeated failures to do something about it.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images
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